A SEVEN-YEAR-OLD bighorn ram, radio collared as part of a study by biologists of the Nez Perce tribe, stood on a bluff overlooking rancher Mick Carlson’s corrals one day in May 2009. His coat gray with age, the ram was no stranger to Carlson’s ranch, which lies in the Salmon River Canyon east of Riggins, Idaho, on the edge of the Payette National Forest and a stretch of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grassland. The radio collar showed that the ram had visited Carlson’s ranch frequently. He was a member of a native bighorn population that roams more than 25 miles up and down the Salmon River Canyon through the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness Area.
The ram didn’t cut the majestic figure that has made Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep iconic in the American West; he was coughing and sneezing from pneumonia. This very disease has killed more than 1,000 wild sheep in recent years in more than a dozen herds across the West. It is a disease that can be passed to bighorns from their domestic cousins and that has been implicated in a developing crisis
How this decline is progressing at various local sites in the West can be seen in Salmon River Canyon country. The old ram’s herd, which has lived among domestic sheep for much of the past century, has dropped 76 percent since the 1980s to only about 100 animals.
This decline is unacceptable to several conservation groups and to the Nez Perce Indians, who have treaty rights to bighorns in the Hells and Salmon River Canyons. The wild sheep have long been important culturally to tribal members, who historically turned the animals’ curved horns into bows and their thin, tough hides into clothing. “How can the Nez Perce people maintain our culture if we do not have enough bighorn sheep to pass along the skills and knowledge of our forefathers to our sons and daughters?” asked Brooklyn Baptiste, vice-chairman of the Nez Perce. Read the entire article.
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