Have you ever seen Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the Kicking Horse Canyon? Have you ever wondered about them? You are not alone! It is not at all rare to see these sheep on or near the TransCanada Highway #1. Their presence is a safety hazard: cars slow down to look or try to avoid hitting an animal; drivers stop, honk at, and occasionally hit the sheep.
Nevertheless, the sheep persist. The story of the Golden herd of bighorn sheep is an interesting look at survival of wildlife which coexist with a major freeway, live in close proximity to a town, and occupy a relatively small and extremely rugged area. Phase 4 of the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure’s TransCanada highway widening project is coming soon and the associated disturbance and alterations to sheep habitat could further jeopardize the herd. In hopes of helping the sheep survive, Wildsight Golden began the Golden Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Project in January of 2019. Wildsight Golden is using non-invasive methods to learn as much as possible about what factors are keeping the number of sheep low while also engaging the public to learn more about wildlife and to share locations of wildlife sighting near highways in the area.
This work has led to a clearer understanding of the factors limiting these sheep and numerous recommendations of what might be changed to alleviate the situation they face.
The project has seven objectives:
• Develop baseline herd health data using noninvasive fecal collection methods to obtain measures of degree of inbreeding, diet quality, parasite loads and stress hormone levels.
• Determine the extent of genetic interchange between Golden herd and other area herds for which genetic data already exists.
• Evaluate lambing success and survival.
• Identify seasonal ranges and critical habitats including lambing areas.
• Assess current range quality and use.
• Determine most effective habitat enhancement sites.
• Engage highway user groups and tourist to share wildlife sighting along Hwy #1 and Hwy #95
Although one might not expect to see Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the Kicking Horse Canyon, this unique herd has resided there since at least 1986. Their numbers have gone up and down with supplemental feeding for many years and translocations in 2007 and 2009. Despite being isolated they do not appear to be inbred; however their diet quality is relatively low and they have parasites which could lead to concerns.
Where they came from is not known for certain but sightings in the Blaeberry and north led to the thought that they came over the Continental Divide from Alberta. Our research has shown that the Golden sheep are most closely related to the Radium herd, based on genetic analysis. This makes sense based on their proximity.
The Golden herd has decreased in size over the last several years despite 2 lambs surviving in 2016, one in each of 2017 and 2018, followed by 3 in 2019. Five lambs were born in May and June, 2020 with 2 still alive. We hope to be able to find out why lambs are dying and what can be done to help this herd survive.
Since 2016, sheep locations and group composition have been recorded frequently by observations from dedicated trips to the 5-mile Bridge and back to Golden. Numerous other variables have also been recorded on the over 225 trips made since February 2019. This has allowed for knowledge of seasonal ranges, herd size and composition.
Range quality and use were evaluated and determined to be of low quality, especially when human disturbance is considered. Use of shrubs and forbs in some areas was very high, especially along the TransCanada highway which may serve as a pathway through the area for the sheep.
Habitat enhancement options were considered and recommendations include improving the quality of the current habitat by removing garbage, planting preferred species and creating alternate travel paths to the highway.
To date over 50 sightings have been shared helping us understand the movements of animals relative to highways, useful information for managing traffic and highway mortality and for establishing wildlife travel corridors. This information will be shared with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to help in their placement of move-able signage to be used in conjunction with redirection of traffic through Radium.
The key recommendations of the study follow:
- Improve winter and spring range quality by cultivating highly digestible and high-protein shrubs, forbs and grasses and removing invasive weeds and garbage
- Document sources of required minerals within the study area and ensure access to mineral licks without interaction with highway
- Ensure lambing area immediately west of Yoho bridge experiences limited to no disturbance from May 10 to July 30, annually
- Alter fencing to encourage use of wildlife overpass, critical spring ranges and areas away from the TCH1
- Alter one-way gates to impede two-way use and/or replace one-way gates with jump outs where appropriate
- Create level to slightly sloping travel routes for sheep and other wildlife to use to move east to west through the canyon
- Install speeding cameras and lighted signage in the canyon near areas of high use by wildlife
- Place movable signage used during traffic diversion periods based on wildlife locations data
- Determine species of dorsal spine larvae present using molecular techniques
Wildsight Golden is looking for volunteers to help with this project! You can help us know where animals are and where they cross the roads by learning to recognize different ungulates (animals with hooves) and sharing locations on your smart phone.
- Download the free app “GAIA GPS Hiking, Offroad Maps” onto your smart phone and make a folder.
- Invite email@example.com to share the folder.
- You can then create a titled waypoint where you see wildlife, dead or alive, from Highway #1 or Highway 95. Note when and what you saw and save it in the folder.
- Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for help getting set up, any other questions or to share a sighting verbally.
- Click here for a review of WILDLIFE YOU MIGHT SEE
Learn more about Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in B.C or watch some sheep videos here
Behaviours and indicators you might see: