The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today extended emergency protection under the Endangered Species Act to the Sierra Nevada population of bighorn sheep. The Service listed the population as endangered, which means it in danger of becoming extinct. This action immediately extends the full protection of the Act to the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep and will remain in effect for 240 days.

"These sheep face serious threats to their existence and need immediate help," said Michael J. Spear, manager of the Service's California-Nevada Project Office in Sacramento. "The pressure on them from predators such as mountain lions and coyotes is intense. Therefore, every possible measure should be taken immediately to help assure their survival. Upon emergency listing, immediate actions could include efforts that result in the removal of mountain lions before they have the opportunity to kill any bighorn sheep."

Protection from possible lion predation is critically important in April and May when bighorn sheep vulnerability to lion predation peaks as they attempt to use low elevation winter ranges to obtain necessary nutrition at the end of gestation.

The purpose of the emergency rule provision of the Act is to prevent species from becoming extinct by affording them immediate protection while the normal listing process is being followed. Species are considered for emergency listing when the immediacy of the threat is so great to a significant portion of the total population that the routine listing process, which may take up to a year to complete, is not sufficient to prevent the loss of large numbers of the species which may result in extinction.

While extending emergency protection to the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, the Service also proposed to list the sheep as endangered under the routine listing process.

Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep numbers have declined from about 310 individuals in 1985-86 to 100 individuals currently. The population is found almost entirely on federal land in portions of Inyo and Mono counties in California. Primary threats to the species are believed to be predation by mountain lions and coyotes, and the direct and indirect effects of bighorn sheep abandoning winter habitat in order to avoid mountain lions. Disease spread from domestic sheep also is a chronic threat.

Until the 1960s, the state provided a bounty on mountain lions which kept the population low enough that predation on bighorn sheep was likely a rare and insignificant occurrence. When mountain lion hunting ended in the 1970s, there was a subsequent increase in the lion population, and predation on bighorn sheep increased.

During the late 1980s, the California Department of Fish and Game removed four mountain lions that were known to have killed bighorn sheep. This management practice contributed, at least in part, to a period of growth in the bighorn sheep population.

California State Proposition 117, enacted in 1990, prohibits the killing of any mountain lion except in the case of an animal that poses a direct threat to people, pets, or livestock. Since the passage of Proposition 117, state agencies no longer have the authority to control lions known to prey on bighorn sheep. The emergency listing will allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to remove mountain lions that are a danger to the Sierra Nevada big-horn sheep. Removal of mountain lions may not necessarily involve lethal techniques. The Service will work with the California Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and National Park Service to implement a plan to protect Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep from mountain lions.

In addition to threats from predation by lions and coyotes, disease spread from domestic sheep has also impacted bighorn sheep populations. In 1988, a strain of pneumonia, apparently contracted from domestic sheep, wiped out a reintroduced herd of bighorn sheep in Modoc County. Currently, domestic sheep are permitted in areas adjacent to bighorn populations. Steps are being taken to modify or retire domestic sheep grazing allotments adjacent to bighorn sheep habitat, but because of conflicting management concerns progress has been very slow.

Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are large, impressive animals. They have a coat of short hair that is tawny to dark brown in color, with a white rump patch. Adult males stand approximately 3 feet tall and weigh up to 220 pounds. They have massive coiled horns. Females of the species are slightly smaller with horns that are narrower and only slightly curved. Bighorn sheep are sure-footed agile animals, with specialized hooves that enable them to move along cliffs and rocky bluffs. The Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep is a distinct population segment of California bighorn sheep. The Sierra Nevada population is defined by its geographic isolation from other bighorn sheep populations and qualifies for listing under these conditions.

The Endangered Species Act directs Federal agencies to protect and promote the recovery of listed species. Proposed Federal projects and actions, including activities on non-Federal lands that involve Federal funding or permitting, require review by the Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure they will not jeopardize the survival of listed species. Once a species is listed, all protective measures authorized by the Endangered Species Act apply to the species and its habitat. Listing a species results in increased public awareness and conservation actions by Federal, state, and local agencies, private organizations, and individuals.

Public comment on the Service's proposal to list the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep as an endangered species is invited through June 20, 1999. Comments should be sent to the Field Supervisor, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2493-B Portola Road, Ventura, California 93003.

A complete description of the Service's proposal to emergency list the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep was published in today's Federal Register.

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