April 2, 2009

Bighorn sheep herd growing

State of California not surveying nor issuing enough tags to reduce sheep numbers

Jim Matthews
Outdoor Writer
San Bernardino Sun

Arizona has more than 7,000 desert bighorn sheep and issues about 100 tags to hunters each year. Nevada has 5,000 desert sheep and issues 60 to 70 tags each year. California probably has more desert sheep than Nevada, but probably not quite as many as Arizona. So how many tags do you think we issue? California issues fewer than 20 tags most years. This coming fall, because our state game agency didn't complete aerial surveys this season, the state will probably only issue 16 or 17 bighorn tags, and two of those will be sold to the highest bidders.

California should have more bighorn sheep than Arizona. But even at today's sheep population levels, we should be issuing 60 to 80 tags for hunters each fall. That would require the DFG to do accurate surveys on all of the state's sheep herds, determine which ones could support hunting, and change how it determines how many tags are issued. The reality is this agency can't even survey the hunted herds because of budget constraints. This is a catch-22. The game programs generate money for the DFG, but when they are cut, revenue declines so they can't pay to do the work necessary to allocate more tags which would generate more money.

"If Cal Fish and Game was doing its job, we should have a minimum of 35 tags each year," said Gary Thomas, a volunteer with the Society for the Conservation of Bighorn Sheep. Thomas said that the added study necessary to increase tag numbers and give the state vital information on sheep herds in the state would require two or three people assigned to the desert sheep program.

The DFG has five biologists working on Sierra Nevada bighorn because they are in danger of becoming extinct, and there's federal funding for endangered species.

But there's not a single full-time staff position devoted to desert sheep. This is despite the fact that herds have been growing the last decade, and there are several herds that could support a tag or two each year, but they aren't hunted because the DFG doesn't have the data.

Thomas said Society maintains water sources and does informal surveys in desert mountain ranges each year, and they have noted growth in many herds. But the DFG has to have documentation on herd increase and can only issue one tag for every 15 mature rams (most states issue three to five tags for every 15 mature rams). They don't know how many sheep live in most desert ranges because they can't afford the expensive helicopter time required to count them.

Thomas said it's time to come into the 21st century and use trail cameras to make population estimates, correlating them with occasional ground and aerial surveys to assure accuracy. Both the National Park Service, on the Mojave National Preserve, and the Society are now placing cameras on desert water sources and the data flowing in is astounding. Thomas says it is simple to identify many individual animals and herd groups and he thinks accurate population estimates will be relatively simple once the techniques are tested and developed.

Then maybe we could see an increase in bighorn tag numbers.

But this is about far more than additional hunting opportunity. If 10 more tags are sold, the state would be able to fund the two to three biologists necessary for the DFG to monitor all the desert herds and fund additional habitat and relocation programs. How? If two of the "new" tags were raffle tags, each of those could raise $150,000 to $200,000 per year or more with a minor promotion program in the state's sporting goods stores.

That infusion of funding, if earmarked for desert sheep, could help restore bighorn populations back into dozens of historic ranges where they disappeared over 50 years ago, which was the original intent of having a hunting program - to fund restoration of the herds.

When the hunting program began, the motto was "10,000 by 2000" - 10,000 bighorn sheep statewide by the year 2000 because of the additional funding it would generate. We could have been there if the DFG had done its job aggressively. But we've lost our way with bighorn and so many other state wildlife and fishery programs.