Restoration Potential of Bighorn Sheep in a Prairie Region


Efforts to recover Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis) throughout western North America have had limited success with the majority of current populations remaining in small and isolated areas on a fraction of their historical range. Prairie environments with rugged topography throughout the Northern Great Plains ecoregion were historically occupied by relatively robust bighorn sheep populations. We predicted there is likely unrealized potential habitat for restoring bighorn sheep to these areas; however, relatively little attention has been devoted to identifying habitat in unoccupied prairie regions. We used global positioning system (GPS)-collar data collected from 43 female bighorn sheep in 2 populations located in the eastern Montana, USA, portion of the Northern Great Plains during 2014–2018 to estimate a population-level annual resource selection model and identify the important factors affecting bighorn sheep resource selection. We extrapolated model predictions across eastern Montana's prairie region and identified potential habitat to understand restoration potential and assist with future translocations of bighorn sheep. Resource selection of bighorn sheep was most strongly associated with terrain slope and ruggedness, tree canopy cover, and a normalized difference vegetation index metric. Within currently unoccupied areas of the historical range, the model extrapolation predicted 7,211 km2 of habitat, with most owned and managed by private landowners (44%), Bureau of Land Management (33%), and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (15%). Our results provide an empirical evaluation of landscape covariates influencing resource selection of bighorn sheep occupying prairie environments and provide a habitat model that may be generalizable to other areas in the Northern Great Plains ecoregion. We demonstrate substantial potential for restoration opportunities of bighorn sheep in the Northern Great Plains ecoregion. Broad restoration of bighorn sheep across the ecoregion would likely require strong collaboration among and between public resource managers, private landowners, and livestock producers given the heterogeneous land ownership patterns, management strategies, and domestic sheep distributions.




Devoe, Jesse D., Blake Lowrey, Kelly M. Proffitt, and Robert A. Garrott. “Restoration Potential of Bighorn Sheep in a Prairie Region.” The Journal of Wildlife Management 84, no. 7 (July 9, 2020): 1256–1267. doi:10.1002/jwmg.21922.
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