Pedestrians, bikers won’t post threat to bighorn sheep in Crystal Valley

Pedestrians, bikers won’t post threat to bighorn sheep

Discussion of the Crystal Trail often seems to prompt commentary about the fate of our bighorn sheep. And yet the herd of bighorn sheep of the mid-Crystal River valley and Avalanche Creek/Marble remains poorly studied and thus not well managed.

According to a 2008 study by the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife, this herd of our “state mammal” then numbered about 100 adults. Today the herd size is estimated at 40 adults. Factors leading to the decline in numbers include bacterial pneumonia that can persist within a herd, diseases transmitted from domestic sheep, predation of lambs by mountain lions especially, and loss of genetic vitality due to the inbreeding within such a small, isolated herd. It is unclear why hunting permits for two rams per year are issued for the area of this herd, when numerous healthier herds within Colorado have zero hunting allotments.

While Parks and Wildlife has expressed concern for our bighorn herd, they haven’t yet done a local plan, notwithstanding its commitment to do so in 2009.

Local CPW officers have repeatedly expressed skepticism about the trail and yet have neglected to create any integrated plan to address the continuing decline of our herd. The state’s report says “bighorn sheep often appear to habituate fairly well to human activity.” This is supported by the frequent sightings of bighorns at Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Evans, the Colorado National Monument, near Georgetown along Interstate 70, in Glenwood Canyon along Interstate 70, along Fryingpan River Road, and even across the Crystal River from Highway 133 near Avalanche Creek and Filoha Meadows.

Pedestrian-bike trails throughout Colorado often treat humans to sightings of nearby bighorn sheep. These include the Arkansas River Trail, the Ridgway Area Trail system, trails in the Dominguez canyons, and the head of the Colorado Trail in Waterton Canyon just west of Denver. Many years ago I and a group of about 20 persons in Waterton Canyon were totally entranced for over an hour as two huge bighorn rams went through the astonishing head-butting ritual to determine who would win the nearby herd of ewes. I can assure anyone that we humans were totally ignored.

I believe that calling out the proposed ped-bike trail in the Crystal Valley as a serious risk factor in the health of our bighorn herd is misguided. Those committed to the survival of our bighorn herd should address the biological causes of its decline, beginning with the implementation of a research-based, local management plan.

Bill Spence