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New policies raise concerns about survival of once-resilient Sierra bighorn sheep after 'substantial declines' — can they escape extinction again?

There has been debate over the best ways to help.

There has been debate over the best ways to help.

Photo Credit: iStock

Sierra bighorn sheep have managed to survive through multiple ice ages, and in recent times, human intervention helped their dwindling numbers rebound, as detailed by Phys.org. 

The agile creatures have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to their environment, but new conservation policies surrounding one natural threat are raising questions about whether the sheep will be able to escape extinction this time around. 

What have the Sierra bighorn sheep survived?

The Sierra bighorn sheep live in California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, which today stretches more than 250 miles.

While the sheep have encountered a variety of weather conditions over the years, their "keen eyesight to detect predators" and ability to navigate "steep, rocky terrain" in order to forage have helped them survive, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Severe winters and diseases are among the threats to their survival, with Phys.org noting that the sheep barely avoided extinction after domestic sheep were introduced to the region around 1860 and brought pneumonia with them. 

Today, mountain lion predation is the main cause of death among the iconic western sheep.

Why you should care about the Sierra bighorn sheep 

These resilient yet endangered creatures have been a vital part of the ecosystem for thousands upon thousands of years, living through an estimated three to six ice ages. When one species goes extinct, it can create a chain reaction that throws numerous elements out of balance. 

For example, the mountain lion — which Phys.org explained was "under relentless persecution until about 1,000 remained in 1963, when bounties ended" — depends on the bighorn sheep as a food source. 

In turn, the lions keep the ecosystem functioning properly, including by preventing deer and elk from spending too much time by streams, as detailed by the Mountain Lion Foundation. This helps guard against droughts and flooding.

How is mountain lion conservation affecting the Sierra bighorn?

There has been debate over the best ways to help both of the creatures.

According to Phys.org, in the 1990s, the Mountain Lion Foundation acknowledged that some lions would have to be killed in order to ensure the survival of the bighorn. 

Part of the reason for this is that wolves, which aren't typically successful bighorn hunters, don't live in the area anymore. 

Yet the CDFW noted that European colonization resulted in the decline of the canine predators, which helped keep the lions in check by competing with them.

Meanwhile, a newer policy that prioritizes a time-consuming method of relocating rather than killing the lions created what Phys.org called "substantial declines in the bighorn populations." 

This has raised concerns over whether the focus on saving individual lions will negatively impact broader conservation efforts for both species in the long run. 

What is being done to help?

Formulating conservation policies requires research, nuanced discussions, and time for effective implementation. Thankfully, there are many organizations that are doing the work.

If you aren't a scientist or conservationist, educating yourself about critical issues, chatting with family and friends, and supporting local causes through volunteer programs are ways to assist both animals.   

Another part of the picture is respecting rules when visiting national parks, in part by giving wildlife plenty of space to ensure more stress isn't added to their situation. 

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