Sierra Nevada Bighorns struggle with record snow
“Imagine, during the worst storms on Mammoth Mountain, and all the lifts are shut down, and you’re inside drinking hot cocoa—Bighorn Sheep are up on those peaks,” said Steven Bumgardner, documentary filmmaker, at a presentation he gave at the Mammoth Lakes Welcome Center for the Winter Wildlands Alliance in March. “And the males, well, they’ve spent their entire fall glaring at each other, butting heads, thinking about nothing but ladies. They’re starving.”
After several years of drought, the whopper winter of 2016/17 served up some challenges to the efforts to reintroduce the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep (SNBS) to their historic range.
According to Dr. Tom Stephenson, Program Leader for California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) SNBS Recovery Program, the historic snowfall gave the animals a run for their money. Stephenson reported that, preliminarily, his staff have observed at least a 15 percent decline in their numbers across the Sierra since the animals were last surveyed in the Fall.
Sierra Nevada Bighorns were first listed as an endangered sub-species under the Endangered Species Act in 2000. They are the rarest mountain sheep in North America. In 1995, there were only 100 individuals left. Historically,they were found from Olancha Peak to Sonora Pass. In 2015, there were 265 individuals ranging from Olancha to the Cathedral Range in Yosemite.
In March of 2015, Bumgardner filmed the release of Sierra Nevada Bighorns into the Cathedral Range—he documented the first time in over 100 years that the sheep species set foot in this portion of its historic range. Two lambs joined the herd the following May, in 2016. But the Sierra’s record-breaking winter, a boon for the drought-stricken state, was a bust for the rut-weakened rams.