There are bighorn sheep in the Cathedral Range in Yosemite National Park for the first time in a century, a stunning comeback for a wild mammal that once teetered on the precipice of extinction throughout the Sierra Nevada.
Between March 26 and 29, a dozen federally Endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep -- nine ewes and three rams -- were moved from Inyo National Forest and the eastern reaches of Sequoia National Park to Yosemite's Cathedral Range, where they hadn't been seen since 1914. Eight of the ewes moved to the Cathedral Range are pregnant.
Seven ewes were also moved into the Laurel Creek area in Sequoia National Park. According to a press release, the California Department of Fish and Wildilfe would be attempting to move three rams to Laurel Creek on Monday as well, which filmmaker Steven Bumgardner documented early Monday afternoon in the photo above.
Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are a distinct population of the bighorn sheep species, Ovis canadensis. The Sierra Nevada sheep were listed as endangered in 2000 under the federal Endangered Species Act when the total bighorn population in the Siera dropped to about 100 individuals. The animals declined for a number of reasons, including hunting and diseases spread by domestic livestock.
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are now something like 600 Sierra Nevada bighorn traipsing around the range, and with this relocation effort, there are at least a few sheep in most parts of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn's former range. Parts of their former range that have been sheep-free for a while.
Hopes are high that the sheep will do well in their new homes: the areas have abundant uninterrupted habitat with high-quality browse for the animals, and are well-removed from livestock operations that might bring new diseases like pneumonia to the bighorn.
The relocation was a joint effort of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Inyo National Forest, and USFWS.
"This is a legacy event for Yosemite National Park and the bighorn sheep," said Don Neubacher, Yosemite National Park Superintendent. "Additionally, this is one of the Signature Centennial projects for the National Park Service and we are ecstatic to see bighorn sheep in the Cathedral Range for the first time in more than 100 years."
"Bighorn sheep are a true symbol of wilderness and represent the need to protect wild lands," added Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy. "With the reintroduction, visitors will experience a wilderness similar to that found in the days of John Muir, when large alpine wildlife was abundant."
The Yosemite Conservancy funded important aspects of the relocation effort into Yosemite, including GPS collars for the relocated animals, along with equipment and bighorn sheep experts to make the move happen over the last week. The groups Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation provided funding for the Sequoia National Park translocation efforts.
The average park visitor is unlikely to encounter the relocated Sierra Nevada bighorn on their visits to Yosemite or Sequoia: the sheep prefer to avoid human company and generally stay on rugged mountain slopes well above 7,500 feet in elevation.
Say hello to the newest member of the Yosemite animal community! This endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep ram was relocated into the Cathedral Range yesterday! If you see him while hiking to Vogelsang this summer, be sure to say hi for me! A photo posted by Steven Bumgardner (@yosemitesteve) on Mar 30, 2015 at 10:51am PDT