Killing Cougars Helps Bighorns

Oregon Takes Action to Protect Bighorn Sheep

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife took action to remove two cougars in the upper Minam River Canyon, following the loss of several newly transplanted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Mountain lions have killed at least four of the 17 bighorn sheep transplanted to the Minam area on February 11. The bighorns were captured in Alberta, Canada and transported to a landing on the Minam River. From there they were airlifted by helicopter for release in the upper canyon.

"These sheep are unfamiliar with their new terrain and haven't learned the locations of good escape cover," said Craig Ely, ODFW's regional director in northeast Oregon. "It will take the animals a few months to be secure in their new habitat. In the meantime, we need to provide the herd some protection."

On Friday, March 3rd, an ODFW biologist and a seasonal employee verified a cougar killed a fourth bighorn. Starting at the site of the kill, the biologists tracked and killed two mountain lions. Cougars often remain in the area of a kill for several days. By starting at the sheep carcass, biologists are reasonably sure they killed the cougars impacting the new bighorn population.

"This is a small portion of the Minam unit, and the removal of these cougars will have no effect on the overall cougar population there. It will be really important, however, in the Little Sheep Ridge area," said Don Whittaker, who oversees Oregon's bighorn program.

"Our intent was not to eliminate cougars in the Minam Canyon, but rather to temporarily reduce their impact until bighorns become established in the canyon," Ely said. "Selective predator removal is fairly common in many reintroduction efforts."

If more sheep are killed by mountain lions, ODFW will assess the feasibility of removing additional individuals preying on the bighorns. Similar actions have recently been employed to reduce predation on a newly transplanted herd of California bighorns in Idaho's Jim Sage Mountains. Cougar removal to protect bighorns is a common management practice in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona at release sites. It is also being used to prevent further depletion of the endangered Sierra Nevada California bighorn herds. "The Minam release represents the first time this action has been warranted for Oregon's bighorn sheep reintroduction efforts," Whittaker said.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep thrived in northeast Oregon for thousands of years. The majestic animals were totally eradicated from the northeast Oregon by 1945 due to competition with livestock, diseases spread by domestic sheep, and overhunting. Attempts to reintroduce the animals began in the 1970s and have continued to today.

Northeast Oregon now boasts herds totaling more than 750 bighorn sheep. Each year new animals are brought in to introduce additional breeding stock, diversify the gene pool, and expand herds into unoccupied areas.

This year's transplant of Rocky Mountain bighorns was subsidized by the Oregon Hunters' Association, which donated more than $30,000 in support of the transplant. The Association endorses the sheep protection effort in Minam Canyon.

"We're in agreement with ODFW on this action," said Sandy Sanderson, state president of OHA.

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