The Hells Canyon Initiative (HCI) is a long-term project to restore Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to the Hells Canyon area in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. More than a quarter of a million visitors to Hells Canyon each year experience first-hand the incredible impact of the Hells Canyon Initiative (HCI). With approximately 850 bighorns in 16 herds, viewing opportunities are abundant for the rafters, fishermen, and tourists who travel to enjoy the Snake River.
The HCI is a public/private partnership that encompasses 5.6 million acres of the Snake River drainage from the mouth of the Clearwater River in Idaho south to Brownlee Reservoir. Participants with WSF in the Memorandum of Understanding are the states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, the Bureau of Land Management. In 2004 the Nez Perce tribe also joined the agreement. To date, WSF has committed over $1.35 million dollars to the Hells Canyon Initiative and related disease research.
By 1945 bighorn sheep had been eliminated from Hells Canyon as a result of disease introduced by domestic sheep and unregulated hunting. In 1971 the states began the restoration process, but efforts were accelerated with the formation of the HCI in 1997. To date, 618 bighorns have been transplanted, in 48 separate management actions. Transplants are vital, but ultimately, maximum sheep populations depend on healthy herds. Despite continuing challenges relating to disease and chronic poor lamb recruitment, the herds are growing at about 7% per year.
The HCI is working to meet the challenges. Dr. William Foreyt, wildlife veterinarian at Washington State University, considers this area the world’s best bighorn sheep laboratory. With over 540 radio-collared sheep, the herds of Hells Canyon are perhaps the most intensively studied ever. Biologists are researching virtually all aspects of habitat and animal behavior in an ongoing effort to identify risks to health and survival. The data they are acquiring will be used to develop both long-term management strategies for bighorns throughout North America and, hopefully, will ultimately lead to new tools to treat and prevent bighorn diseases. More than 170 articles have been published to date. Research continues on the effects of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a respiratory-tract bacteria implicated in many bighorn sheep die-offs around the West. Led by Dr. Tom Besser/WSU and his colleagues, Mycoplasma investigations continue in Hells Canyon, and west-wide.
Habitat improvement projects have involved treating noxious weeds, improving forage quality, developing water sources, prescribed burning, land purchases, acquisition of easements, and retirement of grazing allotments to prevent contact with disease-carrying domestic sheep and goats.
Hunters dream of a tag in the Hells Canyon area. Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state record Rocky Mountain bighorn rams were all from Hells Canyon. A total of 47 rams over 180 Boone and Crockett points have been taken by tag holders in the Hells Canyon area.
If you are interested in making a donation that would directly benefit this effort or if you would like more information about the Hells Canyon Initiative, please contact WSF Headquarters.