Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Progress Towards Recovery

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. After accounting for lamb recruitment during the summer of 2023, we estimate that the population declined by 40% from the summer of 2022. 

Two factors account for the severe mortality last 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.

Population Growth and Numerical Recovery Goals

Population Growth for Each Herd Unit (Ewes)

In bighorn sheep, the number of adult ewes determines how quickly a population can grow or recover from losses. Because of this, the health of a population is often gauged by the number of ewes present. This graph shows population trajectories for adult and yearling females from 1999-2023 based on a combination of population estimates (marked resight and minimum counts) for 6 herds in the Sierra with annual population data.

Sierra bighorn recovery progress by herd

Numerical Recovery Goals

The population goal for downlisting to threatened status is 305 females (for >1 year).

Sierra bighorn recovery progress. All of the required herd units for delisting are occupied for each of the four recovery units.

The population must be distributed among 12 of 16 herd units within the 4 recovery units. For delisting the required number of bighorn sheep must persist for a minimum of 7 years without management intervention. 

Sierra bighorn recovery progress

The numerical and herd unit / recovery unit occupation is tabularly summarized below. Achieving final recovery goals will require additional translocations and augmentations. These ewes may potentially be supplied by the Mt. Baxter, Sawmill Canyon, and Wheeler Ridge herds. Therefore, surplus animals must be available for removal from these herds (see map of herds (JPG)).

Recovery Unit Herd Unit Downlisting / Delisting
Recovery Unit #Ewes
Current Population
Recovery Unit
Current Population
Herd Unit
Plan to Achieve
Numerical Goals
Kern Laurel Creek* 50 0 0 Translocation
Big Arroyo* 0 Translocation
Southern Olancha Peak* 155 136 37 Natural growth
Mt. Langley* 13 Natural growth
Mt. Williamson* 6 Natural growth
Bubbs Creek** 9 Natural growth
Mt. Baxter* 47 Natural growth
Sawmill Canyon* 24 Natural growth
Taboose Creek* 0 Natural growth
Black Divide 0 Translocation
Coyote Ridge 0 Translocation
Central Wheeler Ridge* 50 27 27 Natural growth
Convict Creek* 0 Natural growth
Northern Mt. Gibbs* 50 11 3 Natural growth
Mt. Warren* 8 Natural growth
Green Creek 0  
Twin Lakes 0  
Cathedral Range** 0 Translocation
Item Description
  *         Required, currently occupied
  **       Not Required, currently occupied