PYRAMID LAKE — Nevada state wildlife officials and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe teamed up this week to release 20 bighorn sheep into the hills above the desert lake on tribal land in an effort to reintroduce the species to part of its native habitat for the first time in nearly a century.
One by one, the bighorns bolted out of the gates on Monday, all but ignoring the dozens of supporters who quietly cheered them on, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Past the crowds, they hoofed it through the rocky hills jutting out above the picturesque waters of Pyramid Lake, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of Reno, at a frenetic pace as the sun sets behind the snow-capped mountains.
It marked the first time since the early 1900s that the species has been spotted on the range there.
As part of a reintroduction program several years in the works, the Nevada Department of Wildlife captured the animals earlier in the day in the Sheep Creek Range near Battle Mountain.
“It is an extremely important reintroduction both from a wildlife standpoint, as well as a cultural standpoint for many Native American tribes across the West,” longtime bighorn sheep conservationist Larry Johnson said.
The rocky deserts landscape that surrounds Pyramid Lake once brimmed with scores of the iconic sheep, as evidenced by the many petroglyphs surrounding the lake that depict bighorn sheep — historically a key food source for the native people.
During his travels through Nevada, noted explorer and military officer John C. Fremont described in a Jan. 11, 1843, journal entry walking along the eastern shoreline of Pyramid Lake and passing ocks of ducks, tufa (limestone) formations and herds and herds of bighorn sheep.
But as American civilization continued its expansion toward the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and with the unregulated hunting and disease that came with expansion, the sheep population in the area and across the Western states dropped dramatically.
At one point, the total sheep population across the state dipped to around 2,000 in the mid-20th century, according to state wildlife records.
In the Pyramid Lake range, it’s believed that the entire population was wiped out about a century ago, with the last recorded sighting of a bighorn sheep in the area made in the early 1900s by pioneers heading through northern Nevada.
With restoration efforts like Monday’s reintroduction that have relocated some 4,000 sheep within Nevada, the species is once again thriving in the state. An estimated 12,000 bighorn sheep now live in the Silver State, according the Department of Wildlife.
“We’ve been trying to restore sheep to every possible mountain range that they lived in back in the day,” said Mike Cox, statewide bighorn sheep program coordinator and state biologist for the department.
The desert bighorn sheep is so associated with Nevada, it’s been recognized in Nevada law since 1973 as the official state animal.
Various efforts have been made since the 1980s to try to reintroduce sheep into the Pyramid Lake range, according to Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe Vice Chairman Alan Mandell. But none of those efforts ever came to fruition until Monday.
“There’s nothing like seeing a wonderful, beautiful animal out in its natural world,” Mandell said.
The latest reintroduction effort started more than a year and a half ago, when Johnson approached the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe hoping to kickstart the reintroduction project.
In June 2018, the tribe approved working with the Department of Wildlife on the project. A resolution passed in November 2018 designated the bighorn sheep as a tribal species of protection. Funding for the project came from the Nevada Wildlife Record Book Foundation, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.