Supplemental Water and Feed for Desert Bighorn Sheep

Supplemental Water and Feed for Desert Bighorn Sheep

Years ago I read an article by a man in the Sierra Nevada of California whose mine was being closed by the feds.  They said his mining operation was harming sheep populations.  He said, no, he had operated for many years with no problem to sheep: the problem was increased cougar predation, and hunting.  According to him, un-hunted sheep were so unafraid of humans that he had trained several to eat from his hand, and that their favorite food treats were Doritos, and cigarettes. This sounds like a joke but he was serious. The statement tells us much about the animal. 

Note: This article was written by Christopher Gill and was originally posted on the Circle Ranch blog in the summer of 2010.

In my experience, like elk, bighorn thrive unless humans kill them or the other animals with which they are interdependent.  Sheep are one of the few species humans have been able to domesticate.  They are human-tolerant which is why they are easy to hunt.

Before European livestock diseases bighorns were probably present in great numbers on the plains.  Based on the reports of the earliest explorers, in the Arizona desert there were sheep-hunting tribes whose villages had enormous skull piles.  These would indicate populations that seem fantastic compared to what modern wildlife experts estimate pre-European sheep numbers to have been.  I am speaking here of populations in the 17th century, not the late 19th/early 20th century, which is the conventionally-used benchmark.  Today, those early explorer reports are dismissed as unreliable:  After all, what would an eyewitness know compared to a researcher living 300 years later?

If we can use range practices that mimic nature, add water,  fix sheep-proof fences, and especially,  restore the diverse animal populations on which they are dependent, bighorn will again be commonplace.

Sheep specialists generally disapprove of sheep feeding, for reasons that are best understood as personal beliefs. Consequently, as far as I have been able to discover, there has been no particular study of supplemental sheep food.  If I am mistaken, the results are not discussed.

Yet many other species specialists, quail and deer for example, strongly recommend direct feeding or planting/discing,  to increase food and animal numbers.  It is a paradigm thing.

The debate is not just about whether to add food.  One TPWD large animal expert once advised me not to make water additions in our Circle Ranch mountains, and the sheep program leaders have often said that bighorn do not need any supplemental water.  Yet, without supplemental free water we would have no populations of pronghorn, deer, elk or sheep, and many other species, as we have made it impossible for wild animals to move nomadically to seasonal feed and water, and have so harmed habitat (which is to say their feed and water).

In addition to restoring other species that buffer sheep against predation, and the biodiversity including predators which all these animals need, let’s find out what sheep like to eat.  It is just another tool.  Any  tool can be abused.  Let us consider the use of this tool in a constructive way that neither ‘cattle-izes’ sheep nor poses a health threat, as we do with minerals, salt and water. Knowing more about this will help us to better understand bighorn physiology and assist in broader reintroduction efforts.

If anybody reading this is able to illuminate this subject I would greatly appreciate your information.

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  • A reader sent me this question:

    I read this article on your website but saw no responses. I’ve searched online for bighorn sheep feed and can’t seem to find anything either. I’ve made trace mineral salt licks in the ground (which they love) by mixing 50 lb bags into the earth and have year-round water but would like to add some sheep feed to a feeder. If you had any responses to your article that would help and wouldn’t mind sharing, I’d appreciate it.

    To which I replied:

    Hello Joe,

    In 20-years I could never figure this one out. Salt and water are good. Deer minerals containing copper poison sheep. Maybe commercial sheep feed? But feeding has many unintended harmful side effects and costs money.

    My method was to increase natural feed by holistic planned cattle grazing, and, by pushing biodiversity including protection of so-called exotics. There is only one animal that will go into high, dry, rough, remote terrain and stimulate plant growth through animal impact – aoudad. TPWD says aoudad (and cattle, elk, burros) compete with sheep. I say the animals are complimentary. The agency views are not based on science but rather dogma and a complete absence of holistic thinking. And of course there is lots of agency funding in this war on “invasive species”.

    Let me know what you learn, call if you like, and, thanks for writing.


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