Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Bringing Back the Bighorn

Suggested Citation: Kerr, Andy. 2000. Oregon Desert Guide: 70 Hikes. Seattle: The Mountaineers Books. pp. 53-55.

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Originally, mountain [bighorn] sheep inhabited every canyon, cliff, and lava butte as well as many of the rough lava beds of Oregon east of the Cascade Mountains.

Vernon Orlando Bailey, 1936

The California subspecies of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis caiforniana) was extirpated from Oregon by 1915, the Rocky Mountain subspecies (0. c. canadensis) by 1945. The latter was found in northeast Oregon in the Grande Ronde, Burnt, and Imnaha Basins, while the former were nearly everywhere else east of the Cascade crest.

The Rocky Mountain subspecies usually has heavier horns and is a little larger, stockier, and darker in color than the California subspecies.

Unrestricted hunting, diseases carried by domestic sheep, and conflicts with other livestock contributed to the demise of wild sheep in Oregon.

An aggressive reintroduction program by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) was first a failure and is now a conservation success story.

In 1939, twenty-three Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were transplanted to Hart Mountain from Montana. The last survivor was seen in 1947. A major factor in the failure to reestablish may well have been that it was the wrong subspecies.

In 1954, twenty California bighorn sheep from Williams Lake, British Columbia, were brought to Hart Mountain. The population not only survived, but thrived, and is the major source of California bighorn transplants in Oregon.

Twenty more Rocky Mountain bighorn were transplanted in 1971 from Jasper Park, Alberta, to Hells Canyon but eventually disappeared. Another twenty were released that same year on the Lostine River. This population fortunately thrived and became the source of successful transplants elsewhere in northeast Oregon (including Hells Canyon) and other states.

Today Oregon has an estimated 2,500 California and 550 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

ODFW has identified numerous other transplant sites, but many are deemed unsuitable because of the presence of conflicts with domestic sheep. These "hooved locusts," as John Muir described them, are vectors for Pasteurella pneumonia and other diseases. A big die-off of the Lostine herd in 1986-1987 was likely due to intermingling with the domestic sheep. Ironically, most of the domestic sheep conflict comes from public land grazing permits issued by the Forest Service for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest.

Both successful and potential bighorn reintroduction sites are well distributed around the state and often include de facto wilderness. This is no accident. 

While bighorn sheep are often classified as a wilderness species, not all of Oregon's bighorn sheep are found within designated wilderness areas. Designating bighorn sheep ranges as wilderness is beneficial to bighorn sheep because it will provide long-term habitat protection from industry and development. Therefore the Department strives to keep present and potential bighorn sheep habitat as remote and undeveloped as possible. (1)

Bighorn sheep may soon return to the Deschutes Canyon, Fort Rock Lava Beds, Sutton Mountain in the proposed John Day Wilderness, Succor Creek in the proposed Lower Owyhee National Conservation Area, and elsewhere.

1. Oregon Bighorn Sheep Management Plan 1992 - 1997. Portland, Ore.: Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, n.d., 3.