Citizen Science

Are you an explorer? Want to be a scientist too? We need your help to monitor Sierra bighorn throughout the range!

The wilderness means something different for every explorer. Since the early days of the American West, the Sierra Nevada has served as a haven and a destination for those who seek wild places, whether for adventure, recreation, scientific study, scenic beauty, or simple peace and quiet. Yet wild nature does not consist of rocks and sky alone: the living things that inhabit the wilderness are essential to our experience there. Observation data collected by outdoor enthusiasts can be immeasurably helpful to the recovery effort for the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, teaching us about new habitat use, unusual behavior, and unanticipated long-distance movements.

Next time you’re climbing, hiking, or skiing in the mountains, keep an eye out for sheep sign. You may hear repeated rockfall as nearby sheep dislodge loose stones. You may see tracks (much like deer hoofprints, though the two toes of the print are often more parallel where a deer’s would come to a point), scat (small pellets, also similar to deer pellets, often with a point at one end and a dimple at the other), beds (areas of pawed and flattened ground, usually littered with pellets in discrete piles), or forage (plants nibbled nearly to the ground or dug-up roots). These are all signs that you’re in sheep habitat.

Actually finding the sheep that left the sign can be quite a challenge. Sierra bighorn are well-camouflaged and extremely elusive. Though once in a while you may stumble upon a group of sheep near enough to be visible with the naked eye, a good pair of binoculars is essential equipment for the amateur sheep-spotter. Any time you think you might be venturing into sheep terrain, take a moment to glass the slopes around you. In winter sheep are generally to be found on south-facing, snow-free slopes; in summer they can be just about anywhere. Pay close attention to patches of greenery: these may be lush hanging meadows where sheep gather to find forage. Whenever your eye is caught by an oddly-shaped rock, let your gaze linger. Does the rock have horns? If you wait a moment, does it move? You’re looking at a Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

If you’re lucky enough to have the rare experience of seeing Sierra bighorn in the wild, please share your observations with us! Where you saw the sheep is particularly important: please plot their approximate location and the location from which you observed them, and provide us with the coordinates. If you’re able to count the sheep and give us your best guess as to whether the group was composed of rams, ewes, lambs, or all three, that will be even more helpful. You can send your observations by email to the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation and to DFW’s Recovery Program.

Because the Sierra bighorn population is so fragile, we ask that you make every effort to avoid spooking the sheep. Any stressful disturbance can negatively affect a sheep’s fitness and its ability to survive in the harsh environment of the High Sierra. If you see sheep along your intended route, choose another path.

By participating in our research as a Citizen Scientist, you can give new meaning to your time in the wilderness and contribute to the saving of an endangered species. Thank you, and happy exploring!