Association finds depleted Big Horn sheep count in Okanagan

Click to play video: 'Okanagan sheep count totals could be cause for concern'
Okanagan sheep count totals could be cause for concern
This year's annual Vaseux Lake sheep count yielded some concerning results. The number of California Big Horn Sheep spotted in the area dropped drastically from their last count in 2020. Jayden Wasney reports – Feb 12, 2023

Early Sunday morning, the Southern Okanagan Sportsmen Association undertook its long-standing tradition of counting California Big Horn Sheep and this year the turnout was significantly lower than average.

For 72 years, the association has hiked the hills surrounding Vaseux Lake to count the sheep. It gives them a better understanding of the population in the area. A total of 51 volunteers attended Sunday’s event, following a two-year pause due to the pandemic.

“We’re actually really fortunate that we live in an area where it’s quite easy to get into sheep country,” said Lee Clarke, sheep count community chair.

“A lot of times they’re up in the alpines and it’s a lot harder of a hike. People like the opportunity to be involved and kind of give back to conservation and see what we can find.”

In previous years, the group had detected illnesses among the herd. Sick or dead sheep in the area, caused by a certain bacterial disease, are something the volunteers continue to watch for.

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“We do have something called ’M.Ovi,’ (Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae) which is a type of pneumonia that sheep are susceptible too, so it’s been going through the herd. We’re interested to see, after not counting for two years, what the impact will be,” said Lee.

According to the organizer, the sheep count in 2019 was 97 and in 2020 it was 100, this year the group counted just 47 sheep. Organizers suspect the decrease in sheep is due to illness.

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“I would say this is slightly concerning, because it is a very basic survey of the area if anything it would indicate that at least a more thorough assessment of area I needed,” said Lee.

“Also, with mild weather we are having and the lack of snow in the area, we also need to take into consideration that animals could be wintering in higher-than-normal elevations and some sheep could be staying up above where our hikers started…lots of factors could be impacting numbers.”

Volunteer were also searched of other species during their hike.

“We’ll be running into some mule deer, and probably see the odd coyote, and there’s an off-chance we could see some white tail a little bit higher up,” said Lee.

Dwayne Mehrer has been a member of the Southern Okanagan Sportsman Association for 40 years, and in all of those years, he’s only missed one sheep count.

“It’s neat to have fellowship with likeminded people that are interested in the health of the sheep herd but also in the health of wildlife in general in BC,” said Mehrer. ”Thats what we are, is where interested in the health of the wildlife.”

A total of 11 rams, 35 ewes, one lamb, 111 mule deer, 16 whitetail deer and 30 elk were counted this year.

All data collected from the volunteers will be given to the BC Wildlife Federation, to be analyzed.

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