Forest Service Proposes to Change Designation of Bighorn Sheep Zoological Areas

Contact(s): Nancy Upham

The Inyo National Forest is considering not reinstituting the Forest Order that  restricted recreational use in the California Bighorn Sheep Zoological Areas, which was enacted in 1981.  The Zoological Areas were originally designated in 1972 to protect the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (SNBS) that occupied the Mt. Williamson and Baxter Pass areas.  At this time bighorn sheep populations had been reduced and additional impacts to bighorn sheep from recreation use was a concern to the Forest Service.  In 1981 the Forest Order was signed that set seasonal restrictions on recreational use within the Baxter Pass and Mt. Williamson areas.

The bighorn sheep population continued to decline in the Sierra Nevada and in 2001 the species was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.  Since this listing the population has grown and continued to expand into its historic range.  Continued monitoring by the California Department of Fish and Game and Dr. John Wehausen and other researchers,  has shown human impacts to bighorn sheep, specifically within the Zoological Areas, are not causing negative impacts that would impede recovery of the species.  Their conclusions have shown that while bighorn sheep may react to humans within these areas, population numbers and use of these areas has not declined.  Members of the SNBS Recovery Science Team and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service were consulted regarding the potential impacts to SNBS if this Forest Order were not reinstituted. After consideration of research results, it was determined that impacts to SNBS would be minimal with the removal of this Forest Order.

Enacting this proposal would mean that the seasonal closures and restrictions on dogs and visitor use within the Mt. Williamson and Baxter Pass areas would not be reinstituted. The Inyo National Forest will continue to implement overnight quota limits for these areas as well as enforcing the requirement for visitors to keep their dogs under control at all times, in accordance with the 2001 Ansel Adams and John Muir Wilderness Plan. The Forest Service will continue to monitor recreational use in these areas and in cooperation with the California Department of Fish and Game, will determine if increased use is leading toward changes in bighorn behavior. If monitoring shows negative effects to SNBS from recreational use then the appropriate management direction will be proposed to reduce those impacts.

The purpose of this proposal is to provide management direction throughout the species recovery area for the SNBS that is consistent with the SNBS Recovery Plan. Wildlife Biologist Leeann Murphy explained that when a species is proposed for listing as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must consider whether there are areas of habitat believed to be essential to the species’ conservation. Those areas may be proposed for designation as Critical Habitat. In 2007 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated Critical Habitat for Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. On the Inyo National Forest there are a total of approximately 279,000 acres of Critical Habitat, with another 139,000 acres occurring on the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon and Yosemite National Parks. The designated Critical Habitat does overlap with the Zoological Areas, but unlike the Zoological Areas, does not mandate any management actions or restrictions in these areas.  It is the responsibility of the management agency to continue to manage these areas for SNBS and to ensure management actions are not reducing the suitability of habitat in these areas for the bighorn sheep.

Management actions are still needed to address the risk of disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats to SNBS on the Inyo National Forest.   The Forest Service will be proposing a new Forest Order which will restrict all pack goat operations within designated Critical Habitat.  No pack goats will be authorized within these areas at any time.  The Critical Habitat areas will be used to ensure consistency throughout the occupied, and potentially occupied, SNBS habitat across the Inyo National Forest.

For further information or to provide comments please contact Margaret Wood, District Ranger for the White Mountain and Mt. Whitney Ranger Districts at 760-876-6227 or PO Box 8, Lone Pine, CA  93545, or Wildlife Biologist, Leeann Murphy, at 760-873-2450 or 351 Pacu Lane Suite 200, Bishop, CA  93514.