Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep symbolize the sheer beauty, strength and spirit of the American West. They also embody an inspiring story of recovery after near extinction. Historically, some 2 million bighorn sheep lived all across the western United States, but they began a sharp decline in the mid-1800s as a result of over-hunting, loss of habitat due to ranching and development, and the introduction of domestic sheep that carried devastating diseases. As a result, many of the herds were completely wiped out by the mid-1990s.
State and federal agencies, Native American tribes and conservation organizations began to work together to reduce disease, stimulate population growth, increase genetic diversity and limit hunting. The Rio Grande Gorge herd, which resides largely in the iconic Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, is now one of the nation’s most prolific herds and is a good example of how important cross-jurisdictional collaboration and management can be to species recovery.
To ensure a full recovery, forest planners at the Santa Fe, Carson and Rio Grande National Forests need to identify bighorn sheep as a “species of conservation concern” which will provide additional protections. The U.S. Forest Service must also develop proactive solutions to avoid conflicts and encounters between bighorn sheep and domestic sheep.