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In 2023, Colorado's Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep saw 'worst year for herd health' in a decade, CPW says

As a result of this data, CPW recommended slightly reducing the number of hunting licenses available for the animals.
Waterton Canyon bighorn sheep May 2019
Posted at 1:52 PM, Jan 10, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-11 10:20:47-05

DENVER — The health of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herds in Colorado was at its lowest in at least a decade, which has impacted available hunting licenses in 2024, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) said during a meeting on Wednesday morning.

Andy Holland, big game manager with CPW, provided an update on Colorado's bighorn sheep and mountain goats herds, as well as recommendations for 2024 hunting licenses for the animals in front of the CPW Commission on Wednesday.

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A bighorn sheep roams a contentious plot of land in Vail, Colo., on Oct. 25, 2022. For more than six years, Vail Resorts has been trying to build apartments for about 160 of its workers on the property called Booth Heights. Opponents say the project would encroach on the sheep herd that frequents the area. (AP Photo/Eddie Pells)

"These two species demonstrate the most effort per license in thought and conversation. They're not taken lightly," he said. "A significant amount of funding and energy for conservation and management of these species comes from hunters themselves, outfitters, conservation organizations such as Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society and Wild Sheep Foundation. They're really the drivers of a lot of the underlying passion for what we do with sheep management."

As a result, bighorn sheep and mountain goat licenses are in high demand. These hunters not only keep populations within the habitat's capabilities, but also help prevent disease-related die-offs. Whether a hunt is successful or not, all licenses come with a mandatory check requirement, meaning hunters must offer up any information they have on the animals they hunted, ranging from disease samplings to herd observations, Holland said.

CPW gets drone view of Pikes Peak bighorn sheep

"Unfortunately, this was not a good year for bighorn sheep health," he said. "We documented all-age mortality events in three herds, with another herd being suspected of having an all-age mortality... This is the worst report I've had the misfortune of giving in the decade-plus that I've been doing this. This is our worst year for herd health in over a decade for bighorns in Colorado."

In addition to those four herds, CPW has confirmed a respiratory disease that led to lamb pneumonia in four other herds, Holland said.

He highlighted the S32 herd, better known to the public as the Georgetown bighorn sheep herd, often seen on the rocky outcrops above and around Interstate 70 near the town. That specific herd's population was estimated at 350 in 2021, and in 2023, fell to 250.

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"We've had little to no lamb survival due to respiratory pathogens causing lamb mortality since 2021," he said of that herd.

Based on the data collected throughout 2023, Holland recommended a reduction of 10 licenses for bighorn sheep in 2024, bringing the statewide total from 331 to 321. Of those 10 reductions, four are for either-sex licenses (from 239 to 235) and six are for ewe licenses (from 92 to 86). CPW asked for a reduction of five ewe licenses in the S32 Georgetown bighorn sheep.

Bighorn sheep hunting reopened in Colorado in 1953 and an "aggressive trap and transplant program" ran through the 1970s and 1980s, Holland said. Currently, Colorado has an estimated 7,000 bighorn sheep, down from 7,500 in 2021 and 2022, which seemed to be the ceiling, he said.

However, he added that despite data showing die-offs, Colorado has hovered around 7,000 sheep for about 25 years.

The state is continuing to transplant bighorn sheep. More than half of Colorado's current herds are the result of reintroductions to fill in vacant habitat where sheep had been extirpated, he said.

Now, there are few remaining places that are suitable for bighorn sheep transplants. Any viable location must not only have an ecosystem appropriate for the animals, but also no nearby domestic sheep and goats.

"Maintaining separation between wild and domestic sheep is important for maintaining healthy wild sheep, and contact between domestic sheep and bighorn sheep increases the probability of respiratory disease outbreaks in bighorn sheep," Holland said.

He also briefly explained that CPW is recommending a reduction in 36 licenses for mountain goats statewide, from 280 to 244. Zooming in on one specific herd, Holland said CPW is asking that the game management area including Maroon Bells near Aspen, MG-12, should be cut 50%, from 80 licenses to 40 in 2024.

Mountain goat on Mount Bierstadt on Sept. 22, 2019.
A mountain goat on Mount Bierstadt on Sept. 22, 2019.

"We've intentionally reduced that herd through harvest and now we're backing off," he explained, adding CPW has worked to do this between 2005 to the present to reduce competition with high-priority bighorn sheep herds and to prevent damage to sensitive alpine plants.

Following Holland's presentation, the CPW Commission voted to approve the proposed regulations, meaning CPW's license recommendations on bighorn sheep and mountain goats were adopted for 2024.

In interviews for a previous story, some people expressed concerns about how the gray wolf reintroduction will impact the population of bighorn sheep. CPW's wolf reintroduction plan reads that predation on those animals, as well as mountain goats, "is not anticipated to be significant."

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