Bighorn sheep on the greens of an area golf course. Photo by Dauna Ditson

Sheep, fires and the forests where they belong

Two presentations at the Headbanger Festival in Radium highlighted the importance of proper bighorn sheep habitat

During the Radium Hot Springs Headbanger Festival that celebrates the bighorn sheep that winter in the village, presenters said it would be better if the iconic sheep lived elsewhere.

Kent Kebe, who manages Tourism Radium Hot Springs and the local chamber of commerce, told the packed crowd into the visitor information centre on Saturday, November 3rd that the reason he was passing them sheep heads and horns was “to give you an idea of the struggle they have living in a community.”

The Village and the sheep grew together as the golf course and subdivisions developed, he said, and the humans and animals became habituated to each other.

Now ten of the animals die annually in traffic accidents. One was hit by a train. Another was chased by dogs until it fell and broke its leg in a futile attempt to escape.

Thirty years ago Mr. Kebe said it was a surprise to see a big ram walking through town. Now it’s not uncommon to find herds on the golf course or strolling the streets.

“Fire suppression was not friendly to our sheep,” Mr. Kebe said because thick forests leave the animals vulnerable to attack and “they can’t see what’s coming at them.”

Two resource-management staff with Parks Canada – Millie Kuyer and Martin Lafontaine – spoke later on in the Ram Room at the Radium Hot Springs Centre to share why the federal government’s initial strategy to suppress wildfires was a mistake.

“Fire is part of the history in this Valley… Every 20 or 25 years, a fire would come in and kind of refresh the ecosystem,” said Mr. Lafontaine. “We started to realize… maybe the exclusion of fire in the landscape was causing some issues.”

That’s because fire suppression can leave forests vulnerable to much larger wildfires and decreases the amount of open space that naturally appears within the forest ecosystem.

Now Parks Canada lights fires to thin forests, and works to restore habitat to “give place for diversity, for other organisms to come into their natural state,” he said.

They take extra care when it comes to protecting species at risk – like Radium’s bighorn sheep.

Ms. Kuyer said the sheep are vulnerable to pneumonia, getting run over, loss of habitat, forest encroachment and predation.

“With the dense forest, they’re unable to perceive or evade their predators,” she said, adding that they have “pretty specific environmental needs” and that Parks Canada wanted “to provide these animals with more of the land that they need.”

Enter Parks Canada’s restoration area near Redstreak Campground.

The project started in 2001 “to open up the canopy and reduce the fuel loads so that the fires that would come through weren’t raging,” she said.

The first controlled burn was held in 2005. The area was burned again in 2009 and 2015.

As with many of Park’s Canada’s controlled fires, the federal government had more than one goal. In this project, they also wanted to create a place the bighorn sheep would be happy to call home.

“Parks is trying to create this open habitat to draw the animals away from the townsite, golf courses, the open highway corridors, rights of ways, lawns and elsewhere because those places provide that open landscape that they want and they also provide this consistent, easily-accessible forage of grass,” she said.

Shortly after the restoration work began, “the sheep started moving in, which was pretty cool,” she said. While the sheep continue to enjoy the park, they also adore gathering on the greens of The Springs course.

Mr. Kebe said that while the sheep “are using us as predator avoidance,” it would be safer for them to be in the mountains.

Their babies seem to know that too. When the new families come down from the mountains and migrate back into town, he said, “the little ones are quite skittish for about a week.”

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