COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -
Article by Bill Vogrin
Courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife / Brianna Fett
When Colorado Parks and Wildlife staff count sheep, they don’t drift into peaceful slumber. Actually, they lose significant sleep.
About 50 CPW staff and volunteers swarmed across Pikes Peak in the predawn cold and darkness of Aug. 2, driving and hiking to remote ridgelines and meadows in search of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
On Aug. 8, the team was to reassemble at 4 a.m. and again spend eight hours canvassing the famous 14,115-foot mountain for signs of the official Colorado state animal, which is also the symbol of CPW. Rain and snow, however, coated the mountain the previous day making conditions dangerous and forcing the cancellation of the second day of counting.
The effort is part of a nearly 30-year ritual by the agency to track and research the bighorn sheep herd that calls the mountain home.
In 1988, the agency – then known as the Division of Wildlife – initiated a coordinated one-day count of sheep on Pikes Peak. Similar counts have occurred in all but a few years since, with several goals in mind.
First, CPW wildlife biologists want to enumerate the minimum number of sheep in the herd. And they use the data collected to estimate a lamb-to-ewe ratios (a measure of production) and ram-to-ewe ratios (or sex ratio).
Between 2007 and 2009, the agency increased the number of counts to a half-dozen or so per summer as part of a more comprehensive study of herd movement, demography and distribution patterns on the peak. After the study ended, CPW scaled the annual counts back to two per year.
CPW biologists have established about a dozen hiking routes designed to allow staff and volunteers to observe most of the summer sheep habitat on the mountain while minimizing duplicate sightings.
The bighorn sheep on Pikes Peak get special attention from CPW because they are part of a native Colorado herd. CPW places a high value on native bighorn sheep herds and biologists believe the Pikes Peak herd has never been augmented through transplants, as have other herds around the state.
The Pikes Peak herd once was one of the largest herds in Colorado. Today the population is around 140 sheep, which ranks it as an averaged-sized herd in the state. It is valued both as a hunting resource and for wildlife viewing, especially for tourists on the Pikes Peak Highway and the Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cog Railway.
On count days, CPW staff and volunteers use high-powered binoculars and spotting scopes to observe groups of sheep, which can sometime be more than two miles away. Routes range in elevation from the sub-alpine, at 10,000 feet, up to the alpine at the 14,115-foot summit.
Hiking routes range in length and difficulty from an easy round-trip hike of 2 miles, with a 500-foot gradual elevation gain, to an intense 6.5-mile hike with a 2,500-foot elevation gain. There also is a driving route along the highway.
Sheep counts begin early in the morning so crews can be on the summit by 5:30 a.m., allowing them to get in the best possible position to observe sheep. Also, CPW wants the teams off the mountain before any notorious afternoon thunderstorms pop up.
Besides sheep, CPW personnel also record data on elk, deer, marmots, pikas, golden eagles and several other bird species.