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SHEEP: Wildlife Is Monitored

In an unrivaled effort to save a species, experts monitor and manage the populations of cougars and deer as well as the endangered Sierra sheep.

June 18, 2002|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BISHOP, Calif. — Crook, Snoopy, Pancho and Lilly--more capable hounds you'll not find--charge ahead, pursuing a mountain lion that knows this game well.

The last time the dogs were at its heels, the lion bolted up a tree. The trackers arrived and shot him with a tranquilizer dart. He fell from a branch, landed on his head and, while he lay in a daze, they fitted him with a radio collar. Then they turned him loose.

So now this cat wasn't about to get himself treed.

The trackers forge on, huffing the thin air, pushing away shrubs, following a chorus of yelps that fills the morning sky. After four years, the signal from the collar is fading and that won't do.

This lion, like all of the Eastern Sierra's lions, must be watched. The region's deer must also be watched, along with its bighorn sheep.

These animals are wild now in name only. They're under a virtual microscope, with the resolution cranked to an unparalleled level.

Once, the three populations fluctuated according to natural cycles. As deer populations grew, so did the number of mountain lions. When deer herds thinned or fled, lions would eventually follow suit. Some would sustain themselves on sheep until deer became more plentiful.

Now, there is no room for error. Too few deer with too many lions could mean no more sheep. Man, who over the years has brought about a world of change, is compelled to take total control.

"One of the things we don't want to do as wildlife managers is let it get to that point," says Steve Torres, a California Department of Fish and Game biologist and an expert on large mammals. "But the reality is, we're sometimes stuck with these kinds of situations...."

Few places have the kind of intensive wildlife management practiced in the Eastern Sierra.

The aim is to preserve Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, a subspecies similar in appearance but genetically distinct from bighorn sheep found throughout western North America. Sierra Nevada bighorns once numbered as many as 1,000; a few years ago there were as few as 100 as they teetered on the brink of extinction.

Hunting took a sizable toll, until it was banned in 1878. The introduction of domestic sheep, which carried a respiratory bacteria, wiped out thousands of bighorns, including many of the Sierra Nevada variety.

That meant big trouble in the face of growing numbers of mountain lions.

A California bounty on cougars ended in 1963. Sport hunting was banned in 1972. Though mountain lions weren't--and still aren't--considered threatened or endangered, California voters in 1990 gave them "specially protected" status by passing Proposition 117, which made it illegal even for wildlife managers to kill them unless the animals threatened livestock or humans.

More cougars crawled back into the picture. And although they preyed primarily on deer, some had begun to "prey switch" to bighorns.

The sheep reacted by refusing to venture down out of the snow, to the warmth and bounty of their winter ranges. Their numbers plummeted.

On Jan. 3, 2000, the Sierra Nevada bighorns were declared an endangered species, and federal and state wildlife officials began an unrivaled restoration effort.

A team of 12 wildlife managers, operating with a 5-year funding package provided by the Legislature, is charged with conserving five herds scattered from Lone Pine to Lee Vining, and establishing seven others in suitable locations. This means collaring and constantly monitoring all of the mountain lions, closely watching mule deer herds, moving sheep to new locations and, perhaps, growing sheep in captivity for eventual release.

In an exception to Proposition 117, the wildlife managers have permission to kill mountain lions deemed an imminent threat to the Sierra Nevada bighorns. They've killed only three so far. Ultimately, they are in the business of balancing wild animal populations, and setting down parameters for similar management schemes in the future.

Says Vern Bleich, a Department of Fish and Game senior wildlife biologist and the project leader: "If we come out of this in 15 years and say we still have sheep and whacked 27 lions in the process but with no understanding of the way things work, then we've failed miserably.

"So the pragmatic end of it is: Save, conserve and restore sheep. The academic end of it is: Let's try to understand the way things work so that in the future [wildlife] managers will have information to them, which we didn't have."

Looking for the Lion

Trackers Jeff Ostergard and Mike Morgan have caught up to the dogs, but have yet to close in on the lion with the aging collar. The cat's territory is north of Crowley Lake and east of U.S. 395. The animal poses no imminent threat but could easily cross the highway and reach two areas holding bighorn sheep.

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