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Sheep Sightings

Getting up close with bighorn sheep

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They make their homes in the rocky canyonlands of Idaho's backcountry and are seen only by those who have the time and ability to trek far off the beaten path. But in one small pocket of central Idaho, man meets bighorn up close and personal.

Between Challis and Salmon, Highway 93 is called the Bighorn Highway, a place where the iconic wild sheep can be spotted not only from the roadway but occasionally on the roadway.

It's a situation that has created unique circumstances. Eager wildlife watchers are treated to unparalleled views of shy sheep, but that access has also led to the deaths of numerous bighorn in collisions with vehicles.

It's just that combination, though, that led a dedicated group of wildlife supporters to create a pair of bighorn sheep viewing areas—the first of which opened last October—along the Bighorn Highway in an effort to both give the curious an outlet and to cut down on animal deaths.

Led by the Idaho Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, the project garnered support from private donors, government agencies and an assortment of outdoor-oriented groups, all of whom wanted to protect the sheep.

"It's a combination of safety and reducing accidents and the opportunity for people who aren't familiar with [bighorn] sheep to realize what a tremendous gem they are in the Idaho wildlife picture," said Dick Nachbar, project chair and longtime member of FNAWS. "There's not many places where you can view bighorns from the highway."

In fact, there aren't too many places to view bighorn sheep at all. Other than Highway 93, the most common area to spot the agile creatures is within Hells Canyon on the western edge of the state.

Knowing FNAWS couldn't complete the project alone, the group found an array of willing partners, including Idaho Outfitters and Guides Association, Wild Sheep Foundation, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Treasure Valley Chapter of Safari Club International, Idaho Transportation Department's Scenic Byway Project, Idaho Watchable Wildlife Program, Idaho Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Grand Slam Club/Ovis, Eastern Chapter of FNAWS, Thompson Creek Mining Company and the U.S. Forest Service.

Together, they came up with the $28,000 for the first of two lookout areas, found an appropriate site on public land and created educational signs for wildlife watchers.

The Red Rock sheep viewing site is just north of Salmon near a boat launch. The structure consists of a metal gazebo within a short walk of the river and is framed by rolling hills. Visitors can take a moment to read sets of interpretive signs highlighting the species and use a built-in spotting scope to scan the nearby hillside for bighorns.

A second wildlife viewing area is planned for the Buffalo Jump area near Challis, adjacent to Yankee Fork Park, but fundraising still needs to be completed on this site before construction can begin.

"This is an absolute, textbook, classic project for Watchable Wildlife," said Sara Focht, wildlife educator at the MK Nature Center and former project coordinator for Watchable Wildlife, which helped with the logistics of the project. "It's perfect."

The Watchable Wildlife program is run through Fish and Game, but is actually an interagency program involving seven agencies and organizations, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and the Audubon Society among others. As a group, Watchable Wildlife promotes opportunities for public wildlife education.

While bighorns are a signature species, they are not without controversy. Though it doesn't compare to the issues surrounding wolves, there is still an ongoing battle between proponents of wild sheep and domestic sheep ranchers, a battle being played out in the Idaho Legislature.

FNAWS took point throughout the project, and Focht said she was continually impressed by the group's ability to jump every roadblock put before it.

Since the viewing area opened, Nachbar said Fish and Game officials have reported seeing a lot of visitor traffic in the late fall and early winter—mating time for bighorns, who put on spectacular displays of head-butting as they compete for mates.

While the lookout is meeting its educational goal, it also seems to be having an effect on the number of sheep/car collisions. According to Nachbar, 20 bighorns were killed along Highway 93 in 2007 and only one in 2008. While it's only an assumption that the viewing area has played a part by prompting motorists to slow down, most people involved are pleased with any help in protecting the sheep.

In the past, efforts have focused on using signs, flags and even blinking lights to try to get drivers to slow down and pay more attention, but nothing has really been successful. While changing the speed limit was never an option, Focht said anything that raises awareness of the sheep is a good thing.

"They can slow down and learn a little bit about what's going on," she said.

Future help may come from the fact that bighorns, along with other Idaho wildlife, are bringing in increasing amounts of money as dedicated wildlife watchers come to Idaho just for a glimpse of some of the state's iconic species.

Over the years, Focht said wildlife watching has become more popular than hunting or fishing, with 394,000 people participating in wildlife viewing—everything from birds to elk and even wolves—in 2006, bringing more than $273 million into the state economy, according to Fish and Game statistics. That same year 186,000 people hunted and 361,000 fished.

"There's an awful lot of dollars spent in Idaho from people just watching wildlife," Nachbar said.