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Vail-area bighorn herd to be part of new tracking project

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society provides funding for tracking collars for bighorns near Vail

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society is providing funds for a tracking project for the East Vail bighorn sheep herd.
Rick Spitzer
Learn more For more information about the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, go to https://www.bighornsheep.org/.

Winter is an easy time to spot bighorn sheep in East Vail. Where those animals go in the summer remains something of a question.

A nonprofit group, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society, has provided funds for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to put tracking collars on several animals to track their movements and habits.

The group’s funding will allow state wildlife biologists to track both the East Vail herd and the movements of another group of animals that live around Gore Pass, roughly south of the Trough Road that cuts through both Eagle and Grand counties.

“The goal of the project is to understand the range (the animals are) using — where they’re wintering and summering and how they’re getting between those ranges,” Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society Director Terry Meyers said.

People who track the bighorns believe there may be some warm-weather interaction between the East Vail and Gore Pass herds. The Gore Pass herd is actually fairly recent. Animals were relocated to the area in 2009 and again in 2014.

Those sheep will travel

While there seems to be plenty of distance between the two herds, Meyers said bighorns can cover a lot of terrain.

“We’ve seen some incredible movement from collar projects over the past few years,” Meyers said.

A collared ram in the Weimenuche Wilderness Area recently traveled more than 20 miles in rough terrain over the course of a few days, then returned to his original spot.

“It was nothing for him, Meyers said.

Understanding the animals’ movements will help with habitat management projects in the area, Meyers said. Tracking will also help with understanding whether, or how much, bighorns interact with domestic sheep.

Interacting with domestic sheep is particularly dangerous for bighorns. Domestic sheep can carry diseases, especially a pneumonia strain that’s particularly deadly for bighorns.

“I love to see the enthusiasm from Vail about protecting (the bighorns), but I wish they understood the disease issue,” Meyers said.

Separating wild, domestic sheep

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society Vice President John Hayter said the nonprofit group is looking at grazing leases, and trying to find ways to work with permit holders to “retire” grazing allotments that pose the prospect of domestic sheep interacting with bighorns.

Tracking the bighorn herds can give wildlife biologists an idea about how much separation there is between wild and domestic animals, Hayter said.

The bighorn society gets much of its funding from the state’s auction raffles for hunting licenses for species such as bighorns. The nonprofit gets all that revenue, and returns 75% to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The remaining money is then distributed to various projects.

“We’ve raised millions for projects like this over the years,” Meyers said.

Vail Town Councilmember Kim Langmaid is the founder of Walking Mountains Science Center. She said tracking the bighorns is an important part of preservation efforts.

She echoed Meyers’ comments about working to keep bighorns away from domestic sheep.

Tracking could also provide information about whether or not the Vail and Gore Pass herds are interacting during mating season. Langmaid noted that more animals are better for ensuring genetic diversity in a group.

Putting collars on the bighorns will require tranquilizing some animals. But, Langmaid said, she’s confident that Colorado Parks and Wildlilfe biologists can keep the animals safe during that process.

“They’ve been doing this for a long time,” she said.

In the short term, Langmaid said her biggest concern is keeping the bighorns off of Interstate 70. The animals have become used to licking the salt from the roadway in the winter, sometimes with deadly results.

Langmaid said she’s grateful for the Bighorn Society contributing to the collaring effort, adding that the town is going to need many nonprofit partners in its wide-ranging efforts for habitat improvement, wildlife preservation and housing.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at smiller@vaildaily.com.


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