You never know what you’ll find digging through old files and boxes, but 50-year old photos will catch your eye, especially if they chronicle the history of bighorn sheep in the Owyhee Desert. Two Fish and Game wildlife biologists, Christopher Yarbrough and Jennifer Struthers, recently discovered a small treasure trove of historic photos while clearing space at the Nampa regional office. They used them to highlight the "recent" history of one of the Owyhee's iconic animals.
Yarbrough and Struthers found six black and white photos in an envolope showing bighorn sheep being released into Little Jacks Creek, along with some scenery and mule deer shots, and a note reading “Release of California bighorn sheep in head of Jacks Creek, Owyhee County, October 1967."
The sheep release predates any current Fish and Game staff, so biologists tapped into the archives to learn more about the transplant. Rachel Curtis researched fellow F&G biologist Regan Berkley's master's thesis on bighorn sheep and found a reference to a report written in the 1960s that shed some light on the history behind the event.
Former Fish and Game biologists Paul Hanna and Mike Rath of the Bureau of Land Management published their report “A Successful Bighorn Sheep Reestablishment Program in Southwest Idaho" for the Biennial Symposium of the Northern Wild Sheep Council, held in 1976 in Jackson, Wyoming.
The report explained the history of bighorns in the Owyhees.
"Bighorn sheep were plentiful when European settlers arrived in southwest Idaho, but sheep numbers began to decline following the mining boom of the late 1800s. The turn of the century saw even steeper declines, and the last reported sighting of a native bighorn sheep in Owyhee County was in 1927," the duo wrote in their report.
The report also noted that in the early 1960s, Fish and Game and Bureau of Land Management initiated a program to restock bighorns into their historic range in southwest Idaho. The trouble was deciding which subspecies to release.
"California bighorn sheep originally spanned southern British Columbia, south through Washington and Oregon, and into northwestern California. The subspecies historically existed further east; but it was unknown how far east, and at which point the Rocky Mountain subspecies was established," the report said. "Examination of native Owyhee bighorn sheep skulls added more confusion than clarification when they showed characteristics from Rocky Mountain, California, and even desert bighorn sheep subspecies."
The report stated that biologists decided southwest Idaho was likely along the historic boundary of the different bighorn subspecies, and that either California or Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep could probably be re-established there. They ultimately decided to release California bighorns because that subspecies was much less abundant than the Rocky Mountain subspecies, and neighboring Nevada and Oregon had already released, or planned to release, California bighorn sheep into adjacent areas.
Luckily British Columbia at that time had excess California bighorn sheep, and if receiving states would pay for capture and transport costs, they were willing to share.
According to the report "The first bighorn sheep reintroduced into Owyhee County consisted of 19 sheep from British Columbia in the East Fork Owyhee River in 1963. Nine more arrived in 1965, and 10 in 1966. On October 28, 1967, 12 California bighorn sheep from British Columbia were released into Little Jacks Creek, eight ewes and four rams of various ages."
While it would be easy to regard this transplant as a success story of re-establishing bighorns to their native range, it wasn't clear at the time.
"The Jacks Creek reintroduction was initially thought to be a failure because early surveys found no sheep," the report said. "However, in May 1968 came the first verified sighting of five sheep in Little Jacks, and cattlemen and hunters reported seeing them occasionally from 1969 through 1972. Helicopter surveys in the spring of 1973 documented a growing population, and in 1975 the first bighorn sheep hunt in Jacks Creek was established."
Since those early releases in the 1960s, the bighorn population in the Owyhees has grown and expanded with the help from a few more relocated sheep in neighboring Big Jacks Creek in 1988.
But the old photos show the 12 bighorn sheep that helped restart the population we currently enjoy in Little and Big Jacks Creeks in southwest Idaho's Owyhee Desert.