This summer, the Village is partnering with the Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations on a pilot project intended to reinforce the natural migration patterns of our bighorn sheep. There has been a trend for some members of the herd to spend longer and longer periods of time within the Village each year. We feel that this trend has negative implications for the health of the herd if it continues. This article is a discussion of the objectives of the project and we hope that it will answer some of the questions and concerns that are being raised.
During the winter months, bighorn sheep need habitat with minimal snow and nutrient rich browse. The areas in and around Radium provide this excellent habitat.
However, from mid-May onwards, wild bighorn sheep populations normally leave these low elevation ranges and head up into subalpine and alpine habitats. This is where the females lamb and the entire herd gets fat for the coming winter. This migration is extremely important as the sheep obtain fresh, nutritious vegetation as they move upslope. Bighorn sheep are susceptible to disease so migrating and being dispersed throughout their normal alpine range helps prevent disease from both occurring and spreading through a herd. By late October and November, they return to low elevations to winter.
In recent years some sheep (we will call them the “stragglers”) have begun to spend their summers in Radium, enjoying the safety and food provided by our gardens and lawns. The numbers of these stragglers seems to be increasing. We fear that, over time, many in the herd will lose their natural migration instinct and stay year round. Losing this migratory behavior could lead to an increase in disease, an increase in mortality from vehicles, increased human conflict, and loss of wildness. The objective of our project is to try to prevent this from happening.
This pilot project will test a simple and humane tool to gently encourage straggler sheep to leave the Village after most of the herd has already departed. That tool is the strong eye of the experienced border collie and handler. We expect the stalking border collie to make the sheep uncomfortable in Radium and move off into the mountains.
The border collies that will be used are highly trained and totally obedient. One whistle will stop them. Their movements can be completely controlled. Their handler has over 20 years of experience and has moved wild sheep, elk and deer professionally in Banff National Park using his border collies. No animal injuries occurred when this technique was used in Banff. The objective is to have the sheep moving in a deliberate, but non-panicked way. Every effort to minimize stress on these pregnant female sheep will be made. It is hoped that the actions of the border collies will cause the sheep to decide for themselves that it is better to leave the Village and migrate into the mountains. We expect that the project will involve less than 20 stragglers out of a total population of approximately 160 sheep.
In addition to concerns about stress to pregnant sheep we are also concerned with traffic safety. If we decide to move sheep across the highway, traffic control will be in place, and all activities will be carried out as safely as possible. If we have concerns that this cannot be done safely, we will not proceed.
We realize that many residents love our bighorn sheep and are concerned about this project, especially on how it might impact the pregnant females. This project is being undertaken with the welfare of the sheep in mind and we share the concerns that are being expressed. As we proceed, if we find that the animals cannot be moved in a gentle non-panicked manner, the project will stop.
If you have any additional concerns or questions, please contact Mark Read at the Village office (250) 347-6455 Mark [dot] Read [at] radiumhotsprings [dot] ca
Keeping Sheep Wild