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Kootenay National Park

The Radium Hot Springs-Stoddart Creek Bighorn Sheep Herd

In Kootenay National Park, bighorn sheep occur primarily in the south end of the park near Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia. In the north end, a small group is sometimes sighted along the highway at Vermilion Pass at the boundary with Banff National Park. Historic ranges east of the Kootenay River and south of the Simpson River appear to have been abandoned for reasons that are not well understood.

Today, the Radium Hot Springs band is the largest sheep population associated with the park [December 7, 2003 count: 251]. The band winters mainly outside the park in the Columbia Valley. In British Columbia, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are blue-listed, which means they have characteristics that make them particularly sensitive to human activities or natural events.

Bighorn ram
A mature bighorn sheep ram (male) sporting a full curl on his horns.
© Parks Canada / A. Dibb
Young ewe
A young ewe (female) bighorn sheep with two small horns.
© Parks Canada/A. Dibb

A close up view of a shaggy, cream-coloured mountain goat looking directly toward the camera.
A shaggy mountain goat perched against a steep rock face.
© Parks Canada

Mature males or rams are identifiable by their large, curling horns and solid, square bodies. Females and young males have shorter buff-coloured horns and are generally smaller. Mountain goats are white and both sexes sport thin, black horns.

A close top-down view of one bunchgrass plant in grassland habitat.
Bunch grass
© Parks Canada / L. Halverson

Bighorns sheep are grazers. Their diet consists of grasses, sedges and forbs (flowering plants), though they will resort to eating twigs and woody plants when preferred foods are scarce. Bighorn migrate seasonally between low elevation grasslands and high alpine meadows on or adjacent to steep terrain. Combined with excellent eyesight, this preference for open habitat with nearby escape terrain evolved as a means to detect and avoid predators like cougars. Ranges can be further broken down into lambing ranges, mineral licks, and rutting ranges.

Native grass species such as bluebunch wheatgrass become protein-rich in the growing season. This protein is retained in the grass through the winter and provides important food for bighorn during this lean time.

But Bighorns don't occur everywhere in the mountains. Their numbers and distribution are severely limited by availability of suitable winter range, especially low elevation open forest and grassland habitats. Further constraining their winter range options, this habitat must retain little snow and offer escape terrain. Bighorn sheep herds depend on traditional ranges and are tied to historical migration routes. They share the fate of their seasonal ranges and migration routes. Winter ranges, which tend to lie in valley bottoms, are most affected by human activity and consequently, most at risk.

Threats to winter range include forest encroachment and in-growth due to decades of fire suppression. Land development is also consuming important winter habitats outside the park. Contact between bighorns and livestock, especially domestic sheep, can result in spread of disease or parasites that can be lethal to the wild sheep. Such contact has been implicated in periodic die-offs of bighorns in the East Kootenay region of British Columbia. Stress from overcrowding, deteriorating winter ranges and the effects of serious winters can also result in die-offs.

Within the Columbia Valley, the Village of Radium Hot Springs and surrounding lands are part of a critical winter range for a large band of Bighorn Sheep. In addition to their important ecological role, the Radium bighorns represent one of the best wildlife viewing opportunities in the mountain parks. They are also closely linked to the economy and tourism industry of Radium Hot Springs.

A closeup, frontal view of a mature bighorn sheep ram with its head down grazing on long dried grasses in winter.
Ram in winter grassland
© Parks Canada / A. Dibb

The herd relies on habitat here to survive the long winters when food is scarce and options for movement are limited. The close proximity of people and Bighorn Sheep in the Radium area has resulted in a fascinating relationship between wildlife and humans. This relationship was the catalyst for the Bighorn In Our Backyard (BIOB) project.

Through this project, many community-based stewardship, education and monitoring activities have taken place. Kootenay National Park, adjacent to the Village of Radium Hot Springs, is a major participant in the project.

In addition, the park is a member of the Radium-Stoddart Bighorn Working Group, a multi-agency, multi-stakeholder group. The working group was formed to cooperatively manage and conserve bighorns in the Radium area. Along with BIOB, this working group has begun to restore fire-adapted grassland and open forest ecosystems that provide important winter range to the sheep and habitat for many other species at risk.

A recent phase of this regional restoration effort is the Redstreak Restoration Project .

Related links:

Bighorn: a year in the life