Pagosa’s Past: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

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Photo courtesy John M. Motter
A mountain meadow at the foot of the Pagosa Springs side of Pagosa Peak has been called Cade Flats since pioneer times when Ma and Pa Cade, pictured here in the 1860s, built a log cabin and ranched on the property. Ma Cade was of the benevolent sort and later built a hotel in the town of Pagosa Springs. Many a tale emanated from this landmark. Maybe I’ll get into that one of these weeks.

By John M. Motter
PREVIEW Columnist

I’ve been writing a lot about sheep. Once in a while, a sharp-eyed driver crossing Wolf Creek Pass will have the thrill of spotting one or two big horn sheep, nature’s wild answer to the domestic sheep. Travelers are not the only humans interested in eyeballing these wild critters.

Naturalists working with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are recording observations of bighorn sheep in all of Colorado with a focus on the Weminuche Wilderness and surrounding San Juan Mountains and, most critically, in or near domestic sheep grazing allotments.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, the highest valued and iconic state animal of Colorado, are at risk of developing respiratory disease contracted from domestic sheep grazing on public land.

Effective separation of domestic sheep and goats from wild sheep is the only currently available management solution for preventing or minimizing disease transmission.

The best time to observe these sheep are at dawn or dusk with the sun behind your back. Trails of high interest in the South San Juans include: Upper Endlich Mesa Trail, City Reservoir Trail, Needle Creek Trail, Johnson Creek Trail, Upper Lime Mesa Trail, Upper Burnt Timber Trail, Elk Creek Trail and Vallecito Creek Trail. A good pair of binoculars is most helpful

At almost 500,000 acres, the Weminuche Wilderness is Colorado’s largest wilderness. Renowned for its rugged high peaks, pristine alpine lakes and wide-open expanses of tundra and mountain meadows, it is home to the headwaters of the Florida and Pine Rivers as well as Vallecito Creek and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

Weminuche bighorns are highly valued by sportsmen, wildlife watchers and scientists. The Weminuche population is classified as Tier 1 because it is a true native population, a genetically distinct remnant of the once wide-spread herds of bighorns that lived in southwest Colorado. This population is made up of three herds that are believed to be interconnected and now total about 425 animals.

Historically, bighorn sheep were among the most abundant ungulates in the American West. Population estimates range from 1.5 million to 2 million at the onset of the 19th century. Populations declined with the westward expansion of human populations because of market hunting, introduction of domestic sheep and overgrazing of rangelands. 

Continued next week.