When you see Grand Canyon bighorn sheep on a raft adventure, you’ll likely never forget it. They are amazing creatures to observe. The rams have iconic, impressive horns and the animals’ ability to run the steep cliff walls is fascinating. There are many additional impressive facts about Bighorn Sheep. Unfortunately, this symbol of the American Southwest is under threat. While man-made influences impact herd numbers, respiratory disease is the primary killer of bighorn sheep in the Southwest. Years back, a pneumonia epidemic killed dozens of bighorn sheep in the Mohave National Preserve. Now, recent evidence suggests that the Grand Canyon herds are at risk too.
Grand Canyon Bighorn Sheep – Population is Vulnerable
One of the reasons that the Grand Canyon Desert Bighorns are susceptible to illness is the lack of natural defenses. They live in small, isolated groups instead of one large herd of animals. In addition, there are no vaccines or treatments currently available. Juveniles and lambs in particular have high mortality rates which hugely affects the population. Though it’s not clear how the Grand Canyon bighorn sheep are contracting the disease. However, researchers guess that the respiratory illness is being transmitted from domestic goats and sheep.
While we highlight the respiratory illness as the topic of this post, it is notable to mention that people impact the bighorn population too. Bighorn (as well as other wildlife) eat trash and wrappers left behind by hikers and rafters. The trash reeks havoc on their digestive system and may cause death. Many populations in neighboring states are on the edge of extinction.
Bighorn sheep conservation is important because their survival impacts the existence of other Grand Canyon wildlife. For example, bighorn sheep are the primary prey source for mountain lions, and the carrion feeds the endangered California condors. Bighorn sheep are also the only hoofed mammal that live in and influence the ecosystem of Grand Canyon’s cliff sides between the river and the rim. Interestingly, the population of bighorn in the Grand Canyon is the only non-re-introduced population of this species.
Hope on the Horizon
The Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association (GCROA) is working with the National Park Service to help fund bighorn sheep research and conservation. You may have heard of GCROA when you booked your adventure trip. AzRA and other rafting outfitters invite their guests to pay a one dollar per person per day donation. While you may opt out of the donation, most guests choose to leave it on their invoice. The donation goes directly into The Grand Canyon Fund. GCROA works to raise private funds to benefit Grand Canyon National Park with programs such as wildlife research and education.
From 2010 to 2015 the primary goal of Grand Canyon bighorn sheep project was to determine what elements are necessary to support a healthy population. One of the ways they collect information is by capturing animals and outfitting them with GPS collars. They also gather data from blood samples, nose and throat swabs, and the animals’ tracks and droppings. Finally, biologists rely on direct reports from river guides who call in from their trip if they spot signs of a sick bighorn.
Between 2016 and 2019, Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association wants to raise funds to continue researching and monitoring the bighorn population. The goal is to create a comprehensive study of the animals for conservation efforts. They will also develop a contingency plan in the event of an outbreak of disease.
To learn more about other programs and events supported by the Grand Canyon River Outfitter’s Association, to become a GCROA member, or to make a donation, visit online.
Bighorn Sheep Studies. Retrieved from https://www.nature.nps.gov/views/Sites/GRCA/HTML/Bighorn/Bighorn_ET.htm