Bighorn sheep continue a comeback in Mount Zirkel Wilderness
Steamboat Springs — At $6 apiece, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were the most valuable wild game consumed by Routt County pioneers in the late 1800s.
Today, the sheep are making a comeback atop the highest peaks in Routt County and are serving as a unique wildlife spotting opportunity for backpackers.
Land managers who monitor the health of the sheep in Colorado are envious of the growing strength of the herd in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area.
Parks and Wildlife terrestrial biologist Jeff Yost said Thursday this herd continues to flourish at high altitudes near such peaks as Mount Zirkel and Mount Ethel.
From a helicopter, Yost said biologists counted 88 bighorn sheep in the area during winter 2015.
Though dozens of the sheep were thought to have perished during the brutal winter of 2010-2011, when snowpack in some areas was 250 percent of average, the herd has been growing since.
“This sheep herd has a lot of good habitat and a lot of good expansion,” Yost said Thursday. “They’ve expanded their range, particularly in the summertime.”
Yost said the sheep, which are making a comeback in Northwest Colorado after a reintroduction effort, are now found as far south as the cliffs near the southern portion of Newcomb Creek.
The sheep that are now residing along the Continental Divide come from a reintroduction project, in which 41 bighorns were released in 2005 about 20 miles west of Walden.
Yost estimates there are now more than 100 sheep in the Park Range.
“We’re trying to build it up to 150 to 200 sheep,” he said.
Hunting licenses are now issued for two rams and a ewe.
In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, it was estimated as many as 1,000 Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep may have lived in the Park Range.
But the sheep have had a turbulent history since
At one point, they were thought to have been eradicated from the area.
In the late 1800s — before hunting restrictions were placed on the sheep — Indians reportedly traded wild meat for groceries and a mountain sheep sold for $6, while antelopes sold for $2.50.
The sheep “always brought the best price in the market” followed by elk, deer and antelope, according to a historical accounting of the sheep population published by the Forest Service in 1988.
According to a historical accounting of the herds here from the Forest Service, the sheep’s numbers greatly diminished between 1880 to 1930 due to a likely combination of poaching, hunting, excessive grazing, disease and wildfire suppression.
The encroachment of wooded areas and vegetation actually takes away the habitat of the sheep.
In fact, Yost said, some of the recent expansion of the bighorn sheep herds in the area was likely aided by the pine beetle epidemic that killed numerous trees.
With the herd now growing in the Park Range, Yost said Parks and Wildlife and the Forest Service hope the sheep don’t fall victim to their own success.
If the sheep expand too far to the north, they could run into a wild sheep herd near Encampment, Wyoming, that could pass on health issues.
And to the south, biologists don’t want the wild sheep to mix with domestic sheep herds, which also carry potentially fatal diseases.
The herd in the Zirkel Wilderness is one of the newest herds in the state.
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