Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are an endangered species under Federal and California law. There is a real opportunity to recover Sierra bighorn because their habitat is intact and there is broad public and agency support for the effort. Sierra bighorn are one of only two only federal endangered species in Yosemite National Park and Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks (along with the mountain yellow-legged frog); these parks are excited to see this iconic mammal restored as part of the native fauna within their boundaries. Down-listing goals can be met in the next decade if recovery actions are implemented. Translocations to augment newly created herd units are still needed while the existing herds that serve as translocation stock must be protected. Recovery goals are outlined in the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Plan (PDF)(opens in new tab).
Current Population Update
The population of Sierra bighorn experienced about 50% mortality during the extreme winter of 2022-2023. Snow water-equivalent in the southern Sierra Nevada exceeded 400% of normal in some locations. The Recovery Program is conducting surveys this summer to determine the full magnitude of the decline.
Two factors account for the severe mortality this winter. Sierra bighorn who winter at high elevations to avoid predation were impacted by heavy snow that kills bighorn through avalanches and starvation; we really have no way to manage this type of mortality. Bighorn who winter at low elevations as they attempt to escape extreme weather are at much greater risk of predation, and during the past year we documented at least 42 bighorn sheep that were killed by mountain lions.
Sierra bighorn, when protected from excessive predation, have shown a propensity to rebound from severe winters. They exhibit a remarkable ability to persist in an incredibly harsh environment (picture the snowfall that occurred this winter in the alpine).
The Recovery Program intensively monitors mountain lions to determine which lions prey on Sierra bighorn. The mountain lion population in the eastern Sierra Nevada is the largest documented in decades and presently numbers 55 animals. We currently use translocation of lions as an alternative to lethal removal.
During the last year, which will be reported in the 2022-2023 report, we translocated 11 female and subadult lions; the 91% survival rate of those translocated lions exceeds that typically observed in unmanaged populations. Moving lions that prey on Sierra bighorn, particularly on low elevation winter range, is essential for protecting translocation stock needed to augment small bighorn herds.