Endangered Sierra: Mountaintop Marvels   1 comment

The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) is one of three types – or subspecies – of Bighorn Sheep that live throughout the Western United States and into Canada and Mexico. However the Sierra Sheep lives in the most restricted, and often some of the most harsh and difficult environments: Rock-and boulder-filled desert mountains that are dry and hot in the summer; and freezing winters with snowfalls deeper than a house is tall.

Just as the other types of Sheep, the Sierra Bighorn eats grass, leaves, and other small plants but can survive on woody stems and dry vegetation if necessary. They have large, curled horns (larger on the males than the females), but while the horns of most Bighorn form a spiral shape, the Sierra sport more of an flattened, broad shape to their horns. Sierra Sheep are a little smaller than their sheep-relatives, standing about five feet tall, and live in herds numbering up to dozens of individuals. The most distinctive trait of the Sierra Bighorn – other than they live ONLY in the Sierra Mountains – is they have adapted to their challenging environment by migrating; but not thousands of miles across the country like birds, but vertically up and down their mountain homes. In the winter when the higher-you-go the deeper-the-snow, the sheep stay low on the hills and valleys, eating what dry vegetation they can find and staying as warm as possible. This also helps them avoid the busy ski season and all those tourists. In the spring, when mountain meadows are filling with green grass and flowers, the Sheep migrate upward to spend the summer at higher, cooler altitudes, sometimes up to 14, 000 feet! They avoid any forested areas where it’s difficult to see predators.

But due to many causes the Sierra Nevada Bighorn is seriously endangered: Diseases caught from domestic sheep and goats; increased predation (particularly to the little lambs and young sheep); changes in the environment causing less vegetation to eat; and generally small population size and numbers (which means a single event, such as a disease that spreads within the herd, or the loss of feeding areas, could destroy so many of the sheep they could never recover). The Sierra Bighorn is at the point called an extinction vortex. If things for the sheep continue as they are the numbers of these sheep will only get lower and lower until there aren’t enough left in the wild to continue to survive.

All species listed as Endangered are under special study and protection by scientists, universities, wildlife organizations and the US Government. Today it’s estimated there are only about 400 Sierra Bighorn living in their natural environment. Efforts are being made to keep domestic sheep from being in the area where Sierra Sheep live; to adjust the numbers of Sheep among various locations by moving and re-introducing individuals; and by protecting the Sheeps’ environment.

Sierra Bighorn CA DFG

“The best meadows are that way, I can smell it!” “No, anyone can see the best meadows are THAT way”

One response to “Endangered Sierra: Mountaintop Marvels

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  1. That’s smart of the sheep to avoid the busy ski season in the winter. 🙂 This is good info. Thank you.

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