Thursday, December 11, 2008

Cougar prey on struggling Colo. bighorns

Cougar prey on struggling Redstone bighorns

Writer: Brent Gardner-Smith
Byline: Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

A Redstone resident watched a mountain lion take down a bighorn sheep in Filoha Meadows near Redstone last week. Although such a kill is natural, it takes on significance for a struggling bighorn sheep herd.

The woman was on Highway 133 and could see the open field across the Crystal River where the lion caught its prey. She called John Groves, district wildlife manager for the Carbondale area for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. Groves went out into the meadow on Thursday and confirmed there was a bighorn sheep carcass in the grass, although it had been picked apart by coyotes.

“It’s just the natural predator and prey thing,” Groves said. “A lion ambushed it and took it down.”

Groves was not able to provide the name of the woman who saw the attack. He said she wasn’t disturbed by the incident, but thought the DOW should know about it.

Mountain lions have been seen in the Redstone area before, both by Groves and others. In fact, Groves got a call from someone on Wednesday who saw a mountain lion standing on the bridge that crosses the Crystal River at the bottom of the Avalanche Creek valley.

“There are definitely lions around,” Groves said. “I’ve gotten reports off and on for the last couple of years of people seeing lions around there.”

Groves added there was no cause for alarm.

Unless perhaps you are a bighorn sheep.

Groves said the kill in Filoha Meadows by the lion is not good news for the Avalanche Creek bighorn sheep herd.

The Avalanche Creek herd has dropped from a population of about 250 in the early 1990s to about 70 animals today.

“Basically, the herd is going downhill in population and the lions don’t help with that at all,” Groves said.

The Avalanche Creek herd spends the summer in the high country but likes the west-facing Filoha Meadows in the winter months, as the snowpack tends to remain thin in the area. The open meadow is about two miles below Redstone and across the river from the Penny Hot Springs.

Groves has put radio collars on some of the Avalanche Creek herd and has tracked rams mingling in the summer with domestic sheep grazing on Forest Service land above Marble.

Domestic sheep are thought to transmit a disease called pasturella to bighorn sheep, although the American Sheep Industry Association is fighting that perception. The group’s Web site states that “new, unbiased studies must be conducted to provide conclusive documentation of the causes of bighorn deaths, as well as how bighorns might become exposed to pasturella.”

However the bighorns are exposed to it, pasturella causes a form of pneumonia that kills their lambs.

Ongoing monitoring by the DOW shows that 90 to 95 percent of the lambs being born to the Avalanche Creek herd are dying six to eight weeks after birth from respiratory failure.

This winter the DOW is planning to vaccinate as many members of the herd as it can with an antibiotic.

The DOW is also holding meetings with the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Colorado Wool Growers Association on the topic of pasturella being transmitted between bighorn and domestic sheep.

The group is looking at where wild populations of bighorns are in comparison to domestic herds, according to DOW spokesman Randy Hampton.


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