Ron Smith used to love watching the bighorn sheep in Sinks Canyon when he visited Lander. So much so that after a childhood in Evanston and Green River, college in Laramie, a Game and Fish job that took him around the state and a career change that led him to Arizona, he and his wife chose to retire to Fremont County.
Lander was attractive to the Smiths for many reasons, but his fond memories of watching bighorn sheep in the canyon was no small factor.
Upon arrival in 2015 they spent a day settling in, before Smith couldn’t wait any longer and took a drive up Sinks Canyon to look for bighorns. There weren’t any. He stopped at the visitor’s center and learned that pneumonia, passed from domestic sheep, had wiped out the herd years earlier.
“It just shocked me and left a hole in my heart,” he said.
Realizing that he wasn’t the only one saddened by the loss, Smith helped form the Bighorn Restoration Group.
The group, which attracts up to 40 people to its quarterly meetings, is focused on the Temple Peak herd — about 100 animals that occupy the eastern Wind River Range between Bull Lake Creek and the North Fork of the Popo Agie River. Much of the herd’s range is on the Wind River Indian Reservation.
BRG provides information on the Temple Peak herd and the history of sheep in the area. They also provide a way for the public to report bighorn sheep sightings on their website.
The group aims to one day enable the return of a robust herd to Sinks. It supports research to better understand what bighorn sheep need to thrive in the area. The Lander Community Foundation awarded the Bighorn Restoration Group $750, which the group matched with $950 of its own, to fund a Central Wyoming College initiative to map bighorn sheep movements.
Students there are mapping data produced by GPS collars that Wyoming Game and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services researchers placed on 24 sheep in 2016 and 2017.
“Data is nothing if you don’t transform it into something informative,” said Jackie Klancher, associate professor of environmental health at Central Wyoming College.
When Klancher heard the Bighorn Restoration Group had access to collar data she saw a perfect project for students studying geographic information system mapping at CWC.
Several students at the college, as well as a high school student and his father, started working with the data last February. The money raised by BRG helped pay the students a small stipend for their work.
The maps will show researchers what types of habitat the bighorn sheep use for lambing, whether fire ecology influences where they move, how long they stay in certain areas and other valuable information. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services and Wyoming Game and Fish will analyze the maps the students create.
Normally staff from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services or Wyoming Game and Fish would map the data, said Pat Hnilicka, project leader for the Lander Fish and Wildlife Conservation office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But the opportunity to engage students in the process and engender some excitement about science and wildlife management was too good to pass up. The pros even invited high school students from Lander and the Wind River Indian Reservation to help with a sheep capture in March.
It also will help to have college students take on some of the work, such as creating time slider maps, to track individual animals’ daily movements between specific periods of time, he said.
Hnilicka said wildlife managers haven’t decided on a specific goal for the population, or created a final outlook for it down the road. He’s not sure though, that Smith’s dream of a return of wild sheep to Sinks Canyon is feasible. Bighorns aren’t that adaptable when transplanted, he said. There are also some habitat issues with invasive species now in the canyon. But, he said, it’s not impossible.
Smith’s dream is to see the population re-established throughout the Wind River mountains. Last year he met a woman in Sinks Canyon whom he guessed to be in her 70s. She’d brought her husband from Connecticut and they were looking for the sheep she’d seen decades earlier on a childhood vacation. Smith understood why that memory stuck with her and why she wanted to share it.
“Bighorn sheep are such an iconic species,” he said. “They are indicative of wild lands and high peaks and deep canyons and wild country, and to a lot of people in Wyoming, that’s something pretty special to us.”