By Steve Hubrecht
steve@columbiavalleypioneer.com
Photo submitted by Anil-Emre Ayik

Wildlife enthusiasts in Radium Hot Springs are asking the driving public to slow down and drive with caution in the village, and indeed throughout the Columbia Valley, particularly during the fall rut season, after two bighorn sheep were hit and killed in Radium recently.

The first incident happened in late October, just north of Radium, when a vehicle struck a mature bighorn ewe on Highway 95. She was hit by a southbound vehicle in the 60 kilometre per hour zone at the bottom of the hill approaching the new Radium Hot Springs roundabout. The sheep was hit with enough force that its body was propelled more than 40 metres down the highway, ending up on the opposite side of the road.

There were “no vehicle skid marks present on the highway surface to show there was even an attempt to slow down before impact, (and the) only things present at scene were many, many broken plastic parts from the vehicle, which were spread around the impact area,” noted local avid outdoorsman Kent Kebe, adding the sheep’s 16 month old male lamb stayed at the scene waiting by itself for quite some time after the collison.

The second bighorn fatality occurred in early November, when a vehicle hit and killed another mature bighorn ewe on the Forster’s Landing Road on the way from the Radium roundabout down to the mill.

“From what I can see, it was probably a big semi truck, as there were no vehicle parts left on the road (which suggests the vehicle was large and strong enough not to be damaged by colliding with the animal). It happened at 8 p.m., after dark, and there were, again, no skid marks to indicate an effort to stop,” said Kebe, adding this incident occurred in a 50 kilometre zone, and given that the sheep was more than 200 feet down the road from the collision site, speeding may well have been a factor.

Both ewes were likely around five or six years old, according to Kebe.

“People driving through Radium, be they visitors or locals, need to realize they are in a bighorn sheep zone and drive accordingly,” Kebe told the Pioneer, adding the north end of Radium, as well as the Radium hill (coming south out of the village, heading to Invermere), are particularly notorious spots for vehicle-related wildlife fatalities and that bighorn sheep are often the biggest victims in these zones.

The two sheep fatalities came when Radium’s famous bighorn sheep started into their annual rut (mating season), which typically lasts from early November until some point in December. Kebe outlined that this timing is anything but a coincidence.

“The rams are cruising constantly during the rut, moving from the Springs (golf course) to the restoration area to the Resort (golf course) to the Radium hill to near the hot pools. They’re looking for ewes, and they are a bit more focused on that and are not as skittish of vehicles or people as they are at other times of year,” Kebe told the Pioneer. “So this is typically the time of year we see more rams getting hit.”

When the Pioneer spoke with Kebe in mid November, he noted that the bighorns had begun congregating on the Radium hill, a spot they like in winter because snow tends to be somewhat less deep on the steep roadside slopes beside the highway on the hill, which makes it easier for them to get food, but also leaves them in close proximity to Highway 93/95, a proximity that proves deadly to multiple sheep every year. Kebe estimates that Radium herd loses an average of between eight to 20 of its members to vehicle collisions each year.

“People would be shocked if they knew how much wildlife gets hit on the highways in the Columbia Valley. The amount of roadkill is almost overwhelming. There is a lot. A lot. And all kinds: the sheep get hit all the time, but also elk, mule deer, whitetail deer, black bears, coyotes. The only thing I haven’t found lying in the ditch on the Radium hill yet is a moose or a grizzly bear,” said Kebe.

Kebe talked with the Pioneer shortly after completing a bighorn count, which is something Kebe and fellow wildlife enthusiasts try to conduct every few weeks through the fall. The count takes in Radium as well as two other areas on the Rockies side of the Columbia Valley popular with bighorn sheep: Mount Swansea and Stoddart Creek. The mid November count was the third of the year, and Kebe and colleagues spotted 60 sheep. The first count found 138 sheep, the second found 130.

The low number on the third count is no reason to panic, as Kebe pointed out that count numbers can vary quite a lot, depending on weather conditions, seasonal factors such as food availability, and the sheep’s propensity to wander around a lot.

“It’s quite likely that the sheep decided to move up a bit with the storm, going up to steep slopes where the snow is perhaps not as deep, instead of staying in the village, where the snowdrifts and accumulates,” said Kebe, referencing the relatively heavy mid-November snowfall that was covering the Columbia Valley when the Pioneer spoke with him. “It’ll change. When winter comes, and the snow is deep up high, there will be a lot of sheep in the village during our counts.”

Kebe, in fact, was delighted to have spotted three bighorn sheep in Stoddart Creek during the mid-November count, and 14 at Swansea during the second count. “It’s been a while since we’ve seen them at Stoddart, so that’s great,” he said.

The B.C. Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, B.C. Ministry of Environment, Parks Canada, Village of Radium Hot Springs, Lake Windermere District Rod and Gun Club and other groups have been collectively looking at different options that could help reduce bighorn sheep fatalities at the Radium hill.

“The idea is to see if fencing plus an overpass or underpass is feasible for the bighorn sheep and other wildlife,” said Kebe, adding if it is a success, this would not only help the sheep, but also make the situation safer for the public by reducing collisions. “But fencing could end up pushing animals to cross in certain places, which may possibly turn out not to be a good thing,” he added. “Let’s hope it comes out as a positive if it goes ahead.”

“Something needs to be done, as the overall bighorn sheep numbers are indeed dwindling”, said Kebe, pointing out that the Radium herd numbered about 240 sheep just 30 years ago and is now down to 140 sheep.

The problem could get a good deal worse relatively soon, with the construction work on the TransCanada Highway scheduled for 2021 expected to close the Kicking Horse Canyon between Lake Louise and Golden. This will leave TransCanada traffic re-routed down Highway 93 from Lake Louise to Radium, then up to Golden on Highway 95. Kebe noted this will bring a tremendous increase in volume of vehicle traffic through Radium, which will likely negatively affect the bighorn sheep.

The new roundabout in Radium is another factor that has the potential to adversely affect the bighorn sheep, explained Kebe. “It’s wonderful for traffic, much more efficient. It’s great for drivers, no question about it,” he said. “But what we’ve noticed is that traffic is going noticeably quicker because of the roundabout and the added lanes. That could be bad for the sheep.”

Radium is known internationally for its bighorn sheep herd, and people literally come from all over the world to the village to see such wildlife, pointed out Kebe. “They are important, we need to look after them,” he said. “Right now is actually a nice time of year for people, either visitors or valley locals, to come look at the sheep, and take in the spectacle of the rut. You can get some great photos. And it’s quite unique, because the sheep actually come to us, here in the village.”

Observing the rut hasn’t always been quite as easy as it is now, noted Kebe.

“Sheep didn’t always live right in the village, although they have always been on the Radium hill,” said Kebe, adding their move right into Radium has been driven partly by the change in vegetation around Radium and throughout the Columbia Valley over the past century, and partly by the addition of golf courses — which the bighorn sheep find make decent enough winter habitat — in Radium.

“If you look at photos of Radium 100 years ago, you can see there was no thick vegetation really anywhere. But then fire suppression became the norm, and now on the Rockies side of the valley, it’s really thick with fir trees. The sheep don’t like that, they need somewhere open,” he said. “Golf courses are open. If you ever see the sheep on the golf course, you’ll notice they are always right in the middle, where they can see any threats coming. They like to be able to escape. That’s their strategy, to run off somewhere steep and rocky when they feel threatened. And the Springs course has those cliffs between the course and the railway. The sheep love that: they have an open area, with a great escape route into those cliffs.”

Throughout the conversation with the Pioneer, Kebe repeatedly emphasized the need for both visitors and locals to drive with extra care in and around the village during the rut, and in fact, throughout the whole winter.

“Please everyone spread the word to others to slow down in areas of higher concentrations of our very valuable wildlife species and in the Radium area, where we know the bighorn sheep are present and can be in front of your vehicle in an instant,” said Kebe. “It’s disheartening to be picking them up out of the ditch. We’re at two, and we’re barely at the middle of November.”