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Keywords:

  • California;
  • disease;
  • domestic sheep;
  • endangered species management;
  • Ovis canadensis sierrae;
  • recovery plan;
  • Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep;
  • Sierra Nevada mountains;
  • stochastic population projection model

Abstract

Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis sierrae) experienced a severe population decline after European settlement from which they have never recovered; this subspecies was listed as endangered under the United States Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1999. Recovery of a listed species is accomplished via federally mandated recovery plans with specific population goals. Our main objective was to evaluate the potential impact of disease on the probability of meeting specific population size and persistence goals, as outlined in the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep recovery plan. We also sought to heuristically evaluate the efficacy of management strategies aimed at reducing disease risk to or impact on modeled bighorn populations. To do this, we constructed a stochastic population projection model incorporating disease dynamics for 3 populations (Langley, Mono, Wheeler) based on data collected from 1980 to 2007. We modeled the dynamics of female bighorns in 4 age classes (lamb, yearling, adult, senescent) under 2 disease scenarios: 5% lower survival across the latter 3 age classes and persistent 65% lower lamb survival (i.e., mild) or 65% reduced survival across all age classes followed by persistent 65% lower lamb survival (i.e., severe). We simulated management strategies designed to mitigate disease risk: reducing the probability of a disease outbreak (to represent a strategy like domestic sheep grazing management) and reducing mortality rate (to represent a strategy that improved survival in the face of introduced disease). Results from our projection model indicated that management strategies need to be population specific. The population with the highest growth rate (equation image; Langley; equation image = 1.13) was more robust to the effects of disease. By contrast, the population with the lowest growth rate (Mono; equation image = 1.00) would require management intervention beyond disease management alone, and the population with a moderate growth rate (Wheeler; equation image = 1.07) would require management sufficient to prevent severe disease outbreaks. Because severe outbreaks increased adult mortality, disease can directly reduce the probability of meeting recovery plan goals. Although mild disease outbreaks had minimal direct effects on the populations, they reduced recruitment and the number of individuals available for translocation to other populations, which can indirectly reduce the probability of meeting overall, range-wide minimum population size goals. Based on simulation results, we recommend reducing the probability of outbreak by continuing efforts to manage high-risk (i.e., spatially close) allotments through restricted grazing regimes and stray management to ensure recovery for Wheeler and Mono. Managing bighorn and domestic sheep for geographic separation until Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep achieve recovery objectives would enhance the likelihood of population recovery. © 2011 The Wildlife Society.