Continued Return of Bighorn To Hells Canyon
One of the luckiest hunters in America will win a chance at an Idaho bighorn later this month and help in a small way to fund a unique wildlife initiative.

Idaho offers two bighorn tags each year outside the controlled hunt drawing process. One of the tags goes to the winner of a lottery; the other is sold at auction. The Idaho Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS) handles the sales of lottery tickets; the auction tag is sold at the national FNAWS convention. Proceeds of the lottery tag help support Fish and Game's wildlife health lab while money from the auction tag goes toward the Hells Canyon Initiative.

In 1945, the only bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon were haunting images pecked into the rocks by ancient hunters. Hells Canyon, the biggest U.S. wild sheep range south of Alaska, could have 2,000 Rocky Mountain bighorns by 2007.

Fish and Game, with its partners in the Hells Canyon Initiative, is committed to bringing back abundant herds of bighorns to this area. It is twice as big as Yellowstone and includes more than 1.3 million acres of prime wild sheep habitat. The Hells Canyon Initiative began in 1997 with the signing of a memorandum of agreement by the states of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, the US Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and FNAWS.

Since then, 95 bighorn sheep have been released into Hells Canyon from Canada in three transplants. These sheep have subsequently produced more than 70 lambs. Two new thriving herds have been established and existing herds supplemented. Additional transplants will help reach the goal of restoring bighorn sheep in Hells Canyon.

The initiative also seeks solutions to persistent disease problems that plague bighorn sheep throughout North America. Disease limits the innate ability of bighorn sheep to become plentiful in many areas. Hells Canyon serves as a natural laboratory to address factors limiting bighorn sheep. Nearby university and captive research facilities, including the wildlife lab at Caldwell, offer scientific support for this effort. Experiments can be conducted under controlled conditions and results evaluated in a real-world ecological context.

Past and ongoing research includes evaluation of a Pasteurella/Mannheimia vaccine, genetic aspects of disease resistance in bighorn sheep, genetic relationships of Pasteurella/Mannheimia bacteria in bighorns and domestic sheep, effects of co-pasturing bighorn sheep with domestic goats, and relationships of trace elements (selenium, copper, zinc) and nutrition levels with lamb survival.

The Hells Canyon Initiative has been a focal project for bighorn restoration since 1997. Since that time, FNAWS, other foundations, and cooperating agencies have spent $670,000 on the initiative. This has included buyout of a domestic sheep allotment, four transplants, monitoring, and disease research. The canyon is now home to 775 sheep in 16 herds.

One of the Initiative's goals is to have 2,000 sheep in Hells Canyon by 2007. Continuing projects include more transplants, more cutting-edge disease research, and on-the-ground management to eliminate contact with domestic sheep and secure sheep habitat.

Estimated minimum costs are $200,000 to $250,000 per year to keep up Idaho's portion of the intensive work started in Hells Canyon. About half the funding is provided by auction and lottery tags. Fish and Game continues to work toward expanding the base of partner support for the Initiative and to find new sources of funding to handle the challenges expected in the 21st century. New partners may want to further the Initiative because bighorn sheep and hunters are not the only ones with an interest. Bighorn sightings are popular among Hells Canyon visitors who, in turn, support economies in Lewiston, Clarkston, and Enterprise. Other species from elk to otter will also be better off in an improved Hells Canyon habitat.

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