By Steve Hubrecht

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Snowy conditions and wily coyotes have combined to make things difficult for the resident bighorn sheep herd in Radium Hot Springs.

A pair of bighorns have been hit and killed by vehicles in and around Radium in the past few weeks. A ram was hit by a speeding pickup truck on the section of Highway 93 South within the village boundaries (between Sinclair Canyon and the roundabout) on Saturday, Dec. 23. Then on Tuesday, Jan. 2 a young male lamb was killed after reportedly running under the wheels of a semi truck on the Radium Hill (the stretch of Highway 93/95 immediately south of the village).

Radium’s iconic bighorns have made national and international headlines beginning in late 2020 and early 2021, when the number of traffic-related fatalities for the herd spiked dramatically. The spike coincided with the closure of the TransCanada Highway for the Kicking Horse Canyon project and the subsequent rerouting of all cross-country traffic through Radium. Those closures, and the surges in traffic volume, are now over, but winter conditions and speeding drivers continue to combine to pose a large threat to the bighorns. Indeed a majority of bighorn traffic fatalities in the past few years have occurred on Radium Hill, which was never part of the re-routing.

In the winter of 2021 a total of 18 bighorns were hit and killed — an utterly unsustainable number, given that the entire herd numbers just 120 to 140.

Invermere senior conservation officer Greg Kruger told the Pioneer that the death toll of bighorns in recent weeks “may be less than average compared with the past few years, which have been very bad, but is still too many.” 

He urges drivers to slow down.

“Speed is killing the sheep that are drawn to the highway,” he said bluntly, noting that salt or ice-melting chemicals put on the highway attract the bighorns.

The big snowfall in the Columbia Valley in early to mid-December has also helped push the bighorns, and other ungulates species such as elk and deer (see story on page 9) further down to the valley bottom 

“It’s been a rough winter for the sheep. Not only with the traffic fatalities, but also with coyotes,” Radium wildlife enthusiast and longtime bighorn advocate Kent Kebe told the Pioneer.

Kebe outlined that including the two bighorns killed during the holiday period there have been eight sheep killed from November through to January (a period that coincides with the bighorn rut).

Several days prior to talking with the Pioneer, Kebe had found a bighorn lamb that had been eaten by coyotes.

“The coyotes are learning about the sheep, they’ve figured them out.”

The Columbia Valley’s coyote numbers have been low for a long time, but in recent years the population has gotten large again. Some of the coyotes spend a lot of time along the Columbia River near Radium, and this year the canines have started coming up the steep embankments and bluffs along the east side of the river to the golf course, where the bighorns like to hang out. There they try to catch lambs. This has pushed the bighorns away from the golf course over to the Radium Hill, where many of the traffic fatalities occur.

“We’ve never had coyotes issues before. But the coyote population goes in cycles. They were almost gone for a while, now they are back and they’ve figured out the bighorn lambs . . . we’ll see where this winter goes,” said Kebe.

In February 2022 the provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) committed to building wildlife fencing and a wildlife overpass on the Radium Hill to help protect the bighorns.

The Pioneer attempted to follow up with MOTI about the timeline for the overpass, but was unable to get comment prior to press deadline.

Radium Mayor Mike Gray, however, was able to confirm that the project has been tendered. “It was originally scheduled for November (2023), but they decided that instead of having it half done this fall, that they would wait to start it in the spring . . . it’s still on the books, it’s still going ahead,” said Gray.