The Future of Bighorn Sheep Conservation

Nov 05, 2018

At present bighorn sheep conservation strategy can be put into three categories. They are predation, disease, and water. There is little discussion and virtually no action in regard to minerals sources for wild sheep. Yet minerals are a major concern to those who farm domestic sheep.

Minerals affect every facet of wild sheep biology and behavior, and this is true whether were talking about an individual or a population. So mineral sources must be understood and acted upon to advance any strategy for conservation and reintroduction of wild sheep.

For example, as a disease spreads from one population to another the difference in physiology between these populations comes into play. Part of this will be the difference in genetics, for the most part genetics varies little from one population to another. Then there will also be a number of other environmental factors. I believe the most importantly of these environmental factors will be the difference in the mineral diet between the various populations. For any given disease to successfully move from one population to the next it will have to acclimate itself to a very different cellular biology driven largely by the particular minerals or lack of minerals available to that population. Here it is also good to know that it is well known to veterinary science that selenium is important to the immune system. Currently I know of no survey regarding this mineral in any bighorn sheep habitat, or of testing the sheep themselves for any possible deficiency. Sometimes there is a tendency in science to collect data and then not utilize it.

If we want to look at the effects of predation one has to take into account the reproductive ability of that particular population to accurately assess the effects of predation. Here again this will be largely influenced by minerals, most likely selenium and perhaps calcium availability. The effects of selenium on reproduction are well known to veterinary science and is utilized on an industrial scale by domestic sheep farmers. At the same time there seems to be little or no recognition of this knowledge or it’s utilization within wild sheep management programs anywhere that I know of.

Then there is water. Many populations of Bighorn Sheep have a sufficient or even abundance of water, yet they struggle to maintain a viable population and are unable to fill the environmental potential they live in. Of course, there are Desert Bighorn populations that live in an area of water scarcity. It is however my opinion based on my observations that one cannot truly understand the relative value of these limited water sources to a given population of Desert Bighorn Sheep without understanding the minerals associated with them or their lack of minerals. Perhaps another way of expressing this is: If you have a water source in the right place the desert bighorn sheep will drink from it, yet without the proper minerals their population will not grow. There are many examples of this throughout the desert.

For an animal to partake of a given substance it must first look right and smell right. Then, to continue consuming this substance it must have the right texture or feel and taste good. If a substance fails one or more of these it is possible that the animal will not try it, or if it does try it, will not go back to it. However, it should be understood that a substance can pass all these tests and still be detrimental to the health of those that consume it.

I’ve done an experiment with minerals in an attempt to see if desert bighorn would try a new source. The outcome I found very interesting and led to some new ideas. I took a small amount of dry lakebed material and put it in a small container. This material was no doubt rich in salt. I took it to a higher elevation, single-point water source. And then placed a motion sensing video camera there to see what would happen. While a few animals walked right by it as if it were just another piece of dirt or rock most stopped and looked at it as if they might try it, but none sampled the material. What was missing, I believe was the sense of smell. Eventually this may prove to be a key understanding and tool for wild sheep conservation. It is common knowledge that the sense of smell can make you hungry and really want to take a taste of that particular item. There’s been a recent case in the Olympic National Forest were mountain goats were removed that were said to be addicted to human urine. Of course, urine has salts and other minerals in it, as well as a very strong odor. The odor of urine is used by many animals as a territorial marker. Bighorn Sheep have a very well-developed sense of smell. Rams use this sense to smell the urine of the ewes in order to ascertain if they’re ready for breeding.

The use of minerals to affect bighorn sheep conservation and reintroduction can be used on a small scale or very large one. As an example, the wild sheep population in the San Gabriel Mountains often runs around 700 or more. This is unique because it’s a forest habitat that is inhabited by desert bighorn sheep. A large percentage of this habitat has brush too thick for man or beast to utilize, as well as a sizable mountain lion population. In essence it does not appear to be an optimal Desert Bighorn Sheep habitat. Taking this into account one should also consider that the entire population of bighorn sheep in California run somewhere around 4000 sheep, one has to ask why do the San Gabriel Mountains hold such a large percentage of California’s wild sheep population. I believe the answer is minerals and there were people who suspected this even as far back as the late 1970s and early 80s. If one were to transpose the sheep population density of the San Gabriel’s on the Sierra Nevada’s we would be talking about tens of thousands of sheep, not the 200 or 300 that currently live in the Sierra Nevada’s. The Sierra Nevada’s are largely made of granite and as a rule this is not a good source stone for quality soluble minerals. What few mineral sources the Sierra Nevada’s have most likely the sheep have not been found, consumed, understood, or remembered.

Now I’d like to talk about some observations that may lead to a greater understanding of bighorn Sheep habitat and their behavior in it. There is a crossing point between the Cady Mountains and the Sleeping Beauty Mountains that I have been monitoring for a number of years. The Sleeping Beauties mountain range is quite small and to the best of my knowledge does not have a liquid water source anywhere in them and thus does not have a resident Desert Bighorn Sheep population. The sheep that are there are definitely the Cady Mountain herd, but they utilize the Sleeping Beauty Mountains on a fairly constant basis. For years I monitored and explored what I thought would be the obvious crossing point which is an area with the best escape terrain between the two mountain ranges. Time and again I found absolutely nothing to indicate the sheep were crossing there. Eventually I found where they were crossing, approximately a mile away in a relatively open flat area, certainly not the best is far as escape terrain goes. The curious things about this area was while it was very open and seemed to have no real strategic path from one mountain range to the other. Yet there was a highly focused route, in fact there was a well defined game trail. I have seen wide open undefined crossing places like this before. In such cases the sheep will use a wide area to cross from one range to the other, sometimes a quarter-mile wide, and having no game trails. When I first discovered this game trail I had not developed any ideas about the importance of minerals so this phenomena puzzled me. Eventually I came to realize that there was a small relatively focused mineral source along this trail situated at a relatively low elevation between the two mountain ranges on the Cady side. This mineral source had no liquid water source associated with it or any large or significant trees.

Here we must understand that large and significant trees in a Mojave Desert way of thinking. Large and significant trees will often attract a lot of birds and with these birds come bird droppings and small bones. These bird droppings and small bones may be a mineral source in of their own right and one with a sense of smell. As these bird droppings rained down on the soil below them whatever texture or taste this soil has may be enhanced. This same process also occurs amongst various rock formations common in Bighorn Sheep habitat. Often however, these rock formations channels snow and rain in such a way as to wash away any collection of droppings/minerals at their base. I want to investigate this issue further. Currently I believe bird droppings generally are a second or third level mineral source and do not provide a rich or sustaining mineral source necessary to maintain a vibrant population. In the future I hope to understand this concept further and ascertaining the degree to which this provides minerals and the depth of its complexity’’

Another important thing to understand about this particular mineral source between the Cady’s and Sleeping Beauties is that this side of the Cady’s is made of granite which we’ve discussed in this article and others, that it is a poor source of minerals. Therefore, it is likely that after the sheep have spent a few days in this part of the Cady Mountains they may become mineral deficient and will begin to look for a mineral source. Hence this mineral source allows the sheep to spend more time in this part of the Cady Mountains as well as enriching the entire Sleeping Beauty Mountains. Or another way of putting it is this mineral source adds size and value to their habitat. Now, let’s do a little thought experiment with this mineral source between the Cady’s and the Sleeping Beauty mountain ranges. Let’s imagine for some reason perhaps a disease outbreak, the population of Desert Bighorn Sheep in the Cady Mountains drop to such an extent that there were no individuals that knew where this mineral source is, in essence it is no longer in the herd memory. By herd memory I do not mean something that is mystical in nature but rather the fact that numerous animals in a given herd know where a particular resource is, such as water sources or lambing grounds are located. Then as this population recovers or is reintroduced the individuals and thereby the herd would have knowledge of this mineral source. Under these conditions they would not use this part of the Cady Mountains very often due to the fact that it was made of granite and had no minerals known to them. Those animals that crossed over to explore and utilize the Sleeping Beauty Mountains would naturally take the preferred escape terrain route a mile or so north. Thus, it would take decades and perhaps centuries before the sheep would discover the mineral source route and begin to use it again. I believe such conditions exist in many places where sheep population have crashed significantly and are currently surviving with little or no growth.

Understanding the various aspects of Bighorn Sheep, mineral sources can go a long way to mitigating this situation. I believe that a large percentage of the efforts of the various Bighorn Sheep conservation groups should be concerned with this. What we need now are people on the board of directors level status to officially pursue this issue. Currently their first job would be to convince other people within the various sheep conservation organizations of the value of this knowledge and take action. Then we need to do surveys of what mineral sources are out there and their effect various populations.

Through these surveys we will learn many things, some predictable and I imagine some more surprising. For instance, there may be mineral sources being used by wild sheep that are detrimental to their health. Perhaps one that tastes good yet has a lot of lead or perhaps arsenic in it. Throughout many Bighorn Sheep habitats there are both old and active mines, some of which have sheep population centered on them, no doubt due to the crushed/pulverized rock they are using as a mineral source. But some of these mines have natural and artificially placed arsenic in them. Others just have veins of minerals that are extremely concentrated. If such mineral sources are detrimental or even poisonous to a given population it is currently unknown. This could be determined with the technology we have at hand.

These situations can be utilized or mitigated once we have the knowledge. Here again one must consider the importance of the various Bighorn Sheep conservation organizations realizing the power of this knowledge and acting upon it. I believe that once this knowledge takes root in the various Bighorn Sheep conservation groups it will make a huge impact on the success of their efforts, to the point where public criticism will be leveled that wild sheep are being farmed. While this criticism is not new, this knowledge will carry habitat management to a new level of success, thereby producing new and interesting results in the court of public opinion. The point of this is that these conservation organizations need to have an understanding that their success will be measurable and significant. Thus they need to prepare for the consequences of success. The environment we work with is like a river, it is ever flowing and ever-changing and the use of minerals to affect wild sheep populations must be seen in this light. That is, the science and technology we have are just the tools, the goal is to bring about a work of art something beautiful something inspiring, in essence, a large vibrant herd of wild sheep. We can never achieve a pre-Columbian Bighorn Sheep population because the change in the Bighorn Sheep is at the cellular level due to population reduction and inbreeding. Furthermore, the landscape has also changed with highways, fences, and other man-made structures as well as invasive plant species. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t bring about more of the primeval beauty that we find so desirable.

To sum all this up, I believe there is a new era in bighorn sheep management on the horizon that will lead to incredible success and the fulfillment of many peoples hopes and dreams.