Workshop a big hit for bighorn fans

BUTCH MERIWETHER/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->A desert bighorn sheep ewe and its lamb rest on a rock outcrop along the Colorado River.

BUTCH MERIWETHER/Courtesy<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->A desert bighorn sheep ewe and its lamb rest on a rock outcrop along the Colorado River.

KINGMAN - More than 40 people got the experience of a lifetime by participating in the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Bighorn Sheep Workshop held last weekend.

The Game and Fish Department hosts two bighorn sheep workshops a year and attendance is limited to a small number of people whose names are drawn at random. The two workshops this year were held July 29-30 and the first weekend in August.

The workshop includes a mandatory Friday evening two-hour class on conservation efforts, followed by Saturday's four-hour trip on the Colorado River in AGFD piloted boats that traveled from Willow Beach up to Hoover Dam to view the bighorns in their native environment.

"Our goal is to reach as many people as possible, and that's difficult with only 98 open spots over two weeks," AGFD Region III Information and Education Program Manager Zenon Mocarski said. "This is a great opportunity for people to learn about bighorn sheep, the department, and the conservation efforts of many different agencies in regards to bighorn sheep."

When everyone arrived for the Friday evening class at the Game and Fish Department on Stockton Hill Road in Kingman, you could tell by the faces of most everyone that they thought they were in for a boring two-hour class.

As Mocarski spoke, the faces on the participants dramatically changed from "I really don't want to sit here for two hours" to being excited about digesting as much information as possible about the bighorn sheep in Mohave County.

Mocarski provided the workshop participants with numerous interesting tidbits of information about the bighorn sheep and their survival plight. The participants learned bighorn sheep flourished in Mohave County, throughout Arizona and the neighboring states in the early years of the Wild West, but due to disease carried by ranchers' livestock such as cattle and domestic sheep, and especially from unregulated hunting, their numbers were rapidly heading toward extinction.

Today, the biggest threat to fully gown bighorn sheep is mountain lions and to newborn lambs, it is coyotes, golden eagles and bobcats.

Current research indicates the bighorn sheep population in Mohave County is on a steady rise.

"Population numbers are always estimates," Mocarski said. "There is no way to count every single bighorn sheep. However, since suffering a die-off in the early part of the century ... following disease and drought, the population dropped to about 400-plus bighorns (in Mohave County)."

Through the combined efforts of AGFD and various other concerned groups and organizations such as the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, the numbers in the Black Mountains are increasing now.

It is estimated that approximately one-third of all bighorn sheep in Arizona are in the Black Mountains. According to Mocarski, when the last survey estimate was completed, they determined that the bighorn sheep population numbers in the Black Mountains has risen to almost 850.

Officials estimate that there are approximately 337 south of Highway 68, 52 north of Highway 68, 211 on the west side of U.S. 93 near Hoover Dam and 243 east of U.S. 93 near Hoover Dam. Those figures do not include the bighorn sheep that inhabit the west side of the Colorado River near Hoover Dam in neighboring Nevada.

Not all conservation efforts by the various government agencies have been as successful as they had planned. Government agencies completed a project years back during the Highway 68 widening project to help minimize sheep-vehicle collisions and to provide the bighorn sheep a safe passage from the south side of Highway 68 to the north side. Three underpass bridges on Highway 68 were constructed, but it turned out that because the bighorn sheep are visual animals, they did not like to use the underpasses.

"While they did occasionally use them, they (the underpasses) were clearly not effective," Mocarski said. "Obviously, we do not think like a bighorn sheep."

During the planning phase for widening U.S. 93 from two lanes to four lanes near Hoover Dam, the plans for underpasses for the bighorn sheep were reevaluated. The AGFD received funding from the U.S. Federal Highways and the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society to collar bighorns along the Black Mountain range to study movements as part of a research effort.

"The findings suggested that desert bighorn ... do not like underpasses," Mocarski said.

Because of what was learned during the study of the bighorn sheep's travel habits, government officials decided that instead of underpasses along Highway 93 south of Hoover Dam for the bighorn sheep, they would construct wildlife crossover bridges in three locations - Mile Markers 3.3, 5.2 and at 12.2 to cut down on sheep-vehicle collisions and to minimize the potential impacts of bighorn sheep herd fragmentation.

"Bighorn sheep are very visual animals," Mocarski said. "A clear line of site from one end of the ridgeline to the other is an important design feature (for the bridges).

"There required wildlife crossings construction has now been completed on U.S. Highway 93 to protect motorists and provide a safe crossing for the desert bighorn sheep," Mocarski said. "The overpasses are up to 100 feet wide and 203 feet long."

According to game and fish officials, the justification for the crossover bridges being constructed wider was because if they were narrower, it would leave any wildlife attempting to utilize the structure exposed to the visual and auditory characteristics of the traffic below. It took some time, but the bighorn sheep are now utilizing the wildlife crossover bridges and are now able to continue their travel from the west side of Highway 93 to the east side of the road as they have historically done since the original dirt road was constructed for travelers heading to and from Hoover Dam. Today instead of being protected from horseback riders and covered wagons traveling the dirt roads along the expanses of northern Arizona, the bighorn sheep are now protected from the rapid moving motorized vehicles by being able to pass safely over the highway by using the three wildlife crossover bridges.

The conservation efforts of the AGFD have not come to a standstill since the wildlife crossover bridges along Highway 93 were completed. They continue to think of new and innovative ways to help maintain the bighorn sheep population in Arizona. And according to Mocarski, they are always in need of support from the general public and other concerned organizations who want to help out by volunteering their time and to donate much-needed revenue so they can continue their efforts to protect our four-legged National treasures - the desert bighorn sheep.

The temperatures on the river were in the triple-digits for Saturday's portion of bighorn sheep workshop, but the spirits of the participants were even higher. The participants were treated to being able to see 41 bighorn sheep in their native environment along the banks of the Colorado River.

Editor's Note: for further information about the bighorn sheep conservation efforts in Mohave County, please contact Zen Mocarski at (928) 692-7700, ext. 2301, or e-mail him at zmocarski@azgfd.gov.