Decades of wildlife restoration funding help recover Nevada’s bighorn sheep

photo illustration with a map showing the bighorn sheep numbers in 1850 with two bighorn sheep on the right.

Bighorn sheep once roamed the American West by the millions, by the 20th century their numbers were reduced to just a few thousand individuals and were even completely extirpated in several states. Photo illustration: USFWS

By Robyn Gerstenslager
May 5, 2021

Since the 1960s, biologists in the U.S. and Canada have undertaken an ambitious effort to recover bighorn sheep – a species that nearly vanished across western landscapes due to disease transmission from domestic sheep, degraded habitat, unregulated hunting and human disturbances.

five bighorn sheep in bags tied to a rope suspended from a helicopter.

Helicopters are used to translocate bighorn sheep to start or supplement populations. That is the first step, biologists must also ensure herds have habitat and resources need to survive. Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife

The recovery effort in Nevada has been funded by many sources, including donations from sportsmen’s organizations that leverage a substantial amount of federal dollars provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program. The program administers funds generated from the excise taxes manufacturers pay on firearms, ammunition, archery equipment, and fishing and boating equipment. The funds are distributed to state agencies through targeted grant programs designed to benefit fish, wildlife, habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities.

Under the new Partner with a Payer initiative, Justin Cutler, a grants management specialist for the program in the California-Great Basin Region, and Samuel Moore, an American Conservation Experience fellow, worked with Mike Cox, Nevada Department of Wildlife’s statewide bighorn sheep program coordinator and others to create a story map that showcases the partnerships', on-the-ground action and the research that continues to help recover Nevada’s bighorn sheep and answer management questions to support the future of the program.

“The Wildlife Restoration Act is one of our nation’s first conservation laws from the 1930s and was established to help foster collaborative efforts to recover declining wildlife populations,” said Cutler. “The story of bighorn sheep recovery in Nevada is one of many examples of this program’s success, made possible through the funding model of this long-standing program. This model is only realized through the shared conservation priorities of federal and state agencies, equipment manufacturers’ tax contributions, non-profit conservation groups, and passionate volunteers.”

 two bighorn sheep in a trailer.

New research underway includes GPS tracking and computer modeling, using GPS-equipped collars, to learn more about disease transmission in herds and help predict ‘spillover’ disease events. Credit: Nevada Department of Wildlife

Today Nevada boasts a population of over 11,000 bighorn sheep, up from just 2,000 when recovery and management efforts began.

“I am grateful to be a part of something so grand in Nevada in restoring bighorn sheep, our state animal, to their historic ranges,” said Cox. “We Nevadans are also aware and proud that Key Pittman, former Nevada Senator was the namesake and cosponsor to the original Wildlife Restoration Act. It is so cool for us in Nevada to have financial support from the WSFR program, the legacy left by the visionary Senator Pittman to support the restoration of Nevada’s true natural heritage, the bighorn sheep.”

Check out the story map for more on this effort.

The Wildlife Sports Fish Restoration Program Partner with a Payer initiative is designed to strengthen partnerships and increase collaboration and understanding among the Service, state fish and wildlife agencies, and manufacturers who either pay excise taxes on firearms, archery and angling equipment, or support the motor boat fuel tax by the products they manufacture. Visit to find more stories and videos about states’ and the hunting and fishing industry’s contributions to wildlife conservation.


Story Photo

Robyn Gerstenslager and her puppy, Kurt, in Los Padres National Forest.

About the writer...

Robyn Gerstenslager is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the California Great Basin regional office. Previously, she worked for the Ventura Fish and Wildlife Office for two years and has worked in federal government public affairs for more than a decade. She would spend every moment in the woods with her puppy, Kurt, if she could.

More stories by Robyn:

“Harvest Huddle Hours” aim to inspire a new flock of hunters, anglers
Artichokes and amphibians
Walking the beach in the name of science
Endangered Southern California fish saved after population threatened by fire