Death of bighorn sheep in Radium Hot Springs sparks concern among residents
Residents living in theB.C. village of Radium Hot Springs are pushing for change amid concerns the area's bighorn sheep are being hit and killed by vehicles at an alarming rate.
"They're a really amazing group of wild animals," resident Nicole Trigg said. "You just see them day in and day out, and you really develop a soft spot for them."
Since moving to the area three years ago, Trigg noticed there seemed to be more and more of the sheep turning up dead on the highway.
"It's devastating," she said.
It prompted Trigg to create a Facebook page highlighting the apparent spike in bighorn deaths, called Help the Radium Bighorn Herd.
Now, Trigg and her friends are admins for the page, which has more than 300 followers.
The purpose of the page is to draw attention to the herd, whose numbers dropped to 120 last year.
"Last week was devastating," Trigg said Monday. "We had four (bighorn sheep) killed in five days."
"We have two confirmed hits or impacts in the last week in which we don't know what's happened to those sheep.
"We don't know what happens to them, if they wander off, if they get injured, then that could shorten their lifespan they could end up dying elsewhere, and we just don't know."
She noted there are also bighorn hits that go unreported.
WHY ARE DEATHS INCREASING?
There are a number of reasons things are seemingly becoming more deadly for the animals.
"It's a tough winter. There's quite a deep snowpack, and right now, where they normally graze in the winter, it's deep snow with a thick sheet of ice. For the bighorns, it takes a lot of energy to paw through and reach the grass, so what they've ended up doing is congregating on the slopes on Radium hill because the grass is still exposed," Trigg said.
"Plus, we have the salt on the highway, and the combination of exposed grass and salt just makes for a crisis waiting to happen every time there's sheep on the highway trying to feed and drivers trying to get up the hill."
Village of Radium Hot Springs Mayor Clara Reinhardt says it's a serious issue for both the herd and area drivers.
"The last three months have been ridiculous. This is really exceptional what's going on right now."
"There's been a lot of complaints over the last few years about conditions of the highway – that they're too slippery, that the contractors aren't doing their work soon enough – and so there's a lot of focus on making sure things are de-iced, and that includes using salt brines. And there's a lot of science behind that, but it also attracts the critters – especially the bighorn sheep.
"There's actually some research being done on other options, but again, there's a science behind it, because it has to be effective at the right temperatures, it has to be non-threatening to the environment – or less threatening.I'm an advocate for whatever works."
Trigg also says the area has seen more visitors thanks to the rerouting of the Trans-Canada Highway between Golden, B.C. and Castle Junction as work on the twinning of Kicking Horse Canyon highway continues.
University of British Columbia wildlife scientist Clayton Lamb said the dwindling population of the area's bighorn sheep is definitely a concern.
"There's only about 140 sheep in that herd, and we're basically seeing upwards of 10 per cent of those sheep killed just by collisions alone a year, and then we're also losing sheep by disease, and so we're seeing that sheep population decline through time.
"We're certainly seeing declines, so we're not heading in the right direction."
Lamb noted the issue is one impacting both the animals and humans.
"Not only is a bad for the sheep, but of course, there's people that are facing consequences of this situation both financially and physically," Lamb said. "Our vehicles are getting hit, it's interrupting our travel through the highway, and then people are getting hurt.
"Solving the issue would be one of those win-win situations where we can make that that area works a bit better for sheep and for people."
FUNDRAISING FOR AN OVERPASS
The Town of Radium is hoping an overpass can be built to help the bighorn safely cross the highway.
Speaking to CTV, Reinhardt said money had originally been allocated to create an underpass but scientists recommended the sheep need an overpass instead.
"So now we have to find more money," she said.
Efforts are now underway to raise the remaining funds needed to build the overpass.
"The Village of Radium is working on a plan, where if people want to donate money and get tax receipts, we'll be updating our website in the next few weeks to allow people that opportunity. They can go to our website -- RadiumHotsprings.ca -- and get the information they need to make donations toward the overpass to make it happen faster."
Reinhardt said the overpass and fencing is estimated to cost between $4 million and $5 million.
MINISTRY OF TRANSPORTATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE RESPONDS
CTV reached out to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure for comment on the issue before noon Friday. At 6:07 p.m. Monday, a spokesperson emailed the following statement:
"All of Highway 95 between Golden and Radium Hot Springs is considered a wildlife corridor and has oversized wildlife warning signage at regular intervals.
"There are more than 20 watch-for-wildlife signs in each direction on Highway 95 between Golden and Radium Hot Springs, including oversized wildlife warning signage. There are also flashing LED Bighorn Sheep warning signs and oversized sheep-specific signs.
"One of the three overhead message signs is leaving Kootenay National Park on Highway 93. The other two are located for northbound traffic on Highway 95 south and north of Radium Hot Springs. These provide wildlife messaging to motorists in rotation with other important safety messages.
"Last December, the ministry installed intercept salt feeding stations to draw Bighorn Sheep away from Highway 93 and Highway 95 near Radium Hot Springs, and is preparing to install more of these feeding stations in the future.
"Additionally, ministry is investigating the use of pre-fabricated bridges to retro-fit wildlife overpasses along Highway 93 and Highway 95 near Radium Hot Springs.
"The ministry does not have fencing for this herd on Highway 95.
"The Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure tracks wildlife collisions on highways and roads under ministry jurisdiction.
"We recognize the importance of reducing conflict for both motorist safety and conservation of the sheep, and are actively working with partners, including the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, Parks Canada and the Village of Radium Hot Springs, to evaluate further mitigation strategies."
- With files from Kevin Green
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