Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep
|Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep|
|Herd at Wheeler Crest|
|Subspecies:||O. c. sierrae|
|Ovis canadensis sierrae
Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) is a genetically distinct subspecies of bighorn sheep unique to the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep were listed as a federally endangered subspecies in 2000. Today, about 500 Sierra bighorn remain in the wild.
Sierra bighorn range in color from white to dark brown, with a white rump and dark tail. There is some seasonal change in coloration due to the shedding of a thicker winter layer. Specialized hooves with adhesive soles provide traction in steep rocky terrain. Female bighorn (ewes) can weigh up to 155 pounds (70 kg) and have shorter, narrow horns, while male bighorn (rams) can weigh as much as 220 pounds (100 kg) and have massive, curving horns. The horns of both rams and ewes are composed of a dense layer of keratin covering a core of bone.
The average lifespan for Sierra bighorn males and females has been observed as 8 to 12 years.
Sierra bighorn are gregarious, with group size and composition depending on gender and season. Except during mating season, bighorn are usually spatially segregated by sex. Bighorn females (ewes) generally remain with the herd in which they were born. Males (rams) older than two years of age remain apart from females and younger males for most of the year. The groups come together in late fall and winter and concentrate in suitable winter habitat. During this time, males compete for dominance with behaviors like horn clashes. Breeding takes place in late fall. Lambing occurs between late April and early July on precipitous rocky slopes where bighorn are relatively safe from predators.
Sierra bighorn are found in portions of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite National Park to Olancha Peak. Habitat occurs from the eastern base of the range as low as 4,790 feet (1,460 m) to peaks above 14,100 feet (4,300 m). Sierra bighorn inhabit open areas where the land is rocky, sparsely vegetated, and characterized by steep slopes and canyons. Wehausen provides a detailed description of Sierra bighorn habitat throughout their range. Bighorn prefer open ground with high visibility to better detect predators and allow enough time to reach steep, rocky areas (escape terrain). Forests and thick brush are usually avoided if possible.
Most bighorn live at elevations from 10,000–14,000 feet (3,000–4,300 m) in subalpine and alpine areas during the summer. During winter, some bighorn occupy high-elevation, windswept ridges, while others migrate to lower elevations to avoid deep snow and to find forage.
Sierra bighorn are ruminant herbivores with four-chambered stomachs. Bighorn are primarily grazers, consuming various grasses, forbs, and woody vegetation depending on season and location. Naturally occurring mineral licks provide necessary minerals for bone and muscle growth.
Centuries of unregulated hunting, disease outbreaks, and mountain lion predation took a heavy toll on the Sierra bighorn population. By the 1970s about 250 animals remained, occupying only two small areas of their former vast range. Translocations by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) helped to reestablish bighorn herds in historic habitat, but in spite of these efforts the population hit a low of about 100 total individuals in 1995. On January 3, 2000, Sierra bighorn were listed as a federally endangered subspecies.
In 1999, CDFW was made the lead agency responsible for implementing Sierra bighorn recovery. A group of stakeholders drafted the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan, and CDFW formed the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program to work toward the goals of the Recovery Plan. Since then conditions have been particularly favorable for population growth, with the total number of individuals reaching about 250 by 2002 and about 500 in 2013. The Recovery Program continues to monitor population growth, habitat use, and cause-specific mortality of Sierra bighorn, and to carry out augmentations and translocations in an effort to achieve recovery goals.
- "Sierra Nevada Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) species profile". Environmental Conservation Online System. United States Fish and Wildlife Service. March 3, 2010.
- Wehausen, J.D.; V.C. Bleich; R.R. Ramey II (2005). "Correct Nomenclature for Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep" (PDF). California Fish and Game 91 (3): 216–218. Retrieved 2006-07-16.
- This article incorporates public domain material from the Fish and Wildlife Service document "Designation of Critical Habitat for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) and Taxonomic Revision; Final Rule" (73 FR 45534).
- "Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program". California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved 2013-10-24.
- "Physical Characteristics". Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation. Retrieved 2013-10-23.
- "Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Facts". California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Retrieved 2013-10-23.
- Wehausen, J.D. (1980). Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep: history and population ecology (Ph.D. thesis). Univ. Michigan, Ann Arbor. pp. 18–25.
- "US Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species recovery plan for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep" (PDF). Retrieved 2005-06-13.
- "Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Report 2003" (PDF). Retrieved 2006-11-17.
- Boxall, Bettina (April 10, 2014). "Bighorn sheep get a helicopter ride to the Sierra west side". Los Angeles Times.
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