Desert Bighorn Sheep

Clarifying: the Bighorn Sheep listed as endangered are specific populations, called DPS, Distinct Population Segments. The two subspecies within these populations are the Ovis canadensis nelsoni–Peninsular Bighorn Sheep and Ovis canadensis sierrae–Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep, so the Bighorn that live in California. They are listed because they have incurred such devastating population loss, they were unlikely to recover without help.

About Them: Bighorn Sheep live across the western portion of North America from Canada to Mexico. Originally there were between 1.5 and 2 million and now there around between 60-50,000 in total, across all of their range. The males have large curling horns that they use for dominance displays to win rights to mate with females. Males over 2 years olds move in bachelor groups while females and younger sheep live separately. The Bighorn really rely on traveling through territories moving from higher elevations in spring and summer to lower elevations in winter for differing food sources and to have males and females meet for procreation.

General size comparison between large Ram and a 4 foot tall child.

Their plight: Due to exposure to livestock-catching scabies and pneumonia and other diseases carried by livestock that Bighorn have no immunity to, habitat fragmentation from human infrastructure, and originally over hunting, the overall population of Bighorn Sheep is at 1/10th its size comparatively to the historical size pre-settling of the west. The two DPSs are listed as endangered because their numbers are so low that without current protective actions they would disappear. Another factor that complicates the Desert Bighorn Sheep is the changing climate. Through these hotter years and years of drought the change in available water is a problem. Human caused fire suppression has also be in effect for years, which has allowed the brush growth to be so thick it impairs the visibility for the Bighorn sheep to sense predators.

What we should consider: While the population of the general Bighorn sheep is stable it is concerning how much they have lost and how vulnerable they are to our livestock and our disturbance through loud human activities to infrastructure building. Some of it is our activities within wild lands, it is also our interstates that cut through this land. These sheep are unfortunately easily susceptible to this.

I don’t believe hunting to currently be a serious threat. These animals are also a desirable trophy to hunters. Hunting Bighorn is still possible, a tag can be applied for. It is limited, which can cause poaching. It is not that hunters want to wipe out these animals it is that they want the opportunity to hunt them. Hunters are interested in maintaining healthy populations and some are conservationists. But strict rules that don’t have clarity can be dangerous because they cause distrust which leads to the bypassing of rules. It is an unfortunate miss for potential compromise and working together towards similar goals.
I am not a hunter and don’t really love that it is a choice people make, but as long as populations of animals are healthy I think people should be able to hunt. In some cases they are needed to help cull populations where apex predators are no longer.

What is being done: Critical habitat has been set aside for the Bighorn sheep most at risk and Federally labeled endangered. This land is managed to cut down on human disturbance, which is devastating to survival rates of lambs. These sheep are monitored and studied to better understand how to continue helping them to have their population rebound. Bighorn are reintroduced where necessary for genetic diversity needs.

How to help: Death Valley National Park has a great list of how to help specifically Desert Bighorn Sheep: respect closure signs in parks where lambing occurs

Give Bighorn sheep a respectful distance, don’t get too close!

Don’t release Mylar balloons, the can be eaten and cause injury or death

Don’t plant Oleander near Bighorn Sheep habitat, it is highly toxic for them.


Continue bringing awareness. Call into state senators when legislation is being passed that could affect the continued support of policy that protects wildlife and their habitats. Support locally.

Support can be:

  • donating to science groups
  • helping to ensure funding to the organizations that creating breeding programs
  • being a citizen scientist through
    • land restoration project
    • trash clean ups
    • species counts
    • bio blitzes
  • getting people you know excited about how incredible our planet’s biodiversity is.

Joining your local Audubon Society or other local conservation group is a great first step into finding activities and ways to become a citizen scientist and environmental advocate.

Further Reading, my sources:

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