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Radium collisions causing dwindling bighorn sheep population; overpass urged by expert

The Radium herd has been declining for years, and was reduced by 19 just from traffic last year
A Salmon Arm artist worked with talented local fabricators to create an enormous set of steel bighorn sheep horns to greet visitors to Radium Hot Springs. (Village of Radium Hot Springs image)

The number of bighorn sheep killed by traffic collisions in Radium is almost double what it is in a typical year, according to a Kootenay wildlife scientist.

The sheep are drawn to ample food sources in and around town, and the salt used to de-ice the highway.

Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist with the University of British Columbia, said that 19 of the famous Radium bighorn sheep met their end on the stretch of Hwy. 93/95 that goes through the Kootenay town. Four of those deaths were in December alone.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing an average of 10 or more bighorn sheep killed (on the highway) each year, and we’re seeing double that in 2021,” he said.

The sheep are both pushed towards and drawn to Radium - and to the highway in particular - for a few reasons.

“The winter range for those sheep has been contracting through the years due to fire suppression and climate change,” said Lamb, explaining that with forest encroaching on grasslands where the sheep would graze, there’s less food to go around. On top of that, Radium is home to golf courses which draw the sheep in.

“The reduction in their range quality paired with all this manicured green grass has shifted where these sheep live.”

The local herd is made up of about 140 sheep, although that has been declining year-on-year from highs of around 350 in the 90s.

According to Lamb, the target population should be around 250.

“With 19 dead sheep in 2021, that’s 14 percent of the population, which is a huge mortality rate from collisions alone. It’s a large conservation concern.”

Lamb said that it was obvious that the current situation wasn’t working for the famed herd, which is so iconic for Radium that the municipality put a $300,000 monument to bighorn sheep in the middle of the new $11.9-million roundabout in town.

“We don’t want to have a $300,000 statue that celebrates the sheep roadkill capital of Canada. It would much better if we could find innovative ways to keep people and sheep safer.”

Those solutions, said Lamb, had to be good for people and sheep - so getting rid of salt to de-ice the highway wasn’t the best way to go for road safety.

“The gold standard to solve this issue is to fence a portion of the highway, and to build a wildlife overpass,” he said, explaining that other alternatives like lowering the speed limit or increasing signage were unlikely to have much of an impact.

The overpass solution has been often recommended as the way to go for many years, including through a working group created by MLA Doug Clovechok in 2020.

According to Lamb, there are currently plans underway with the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure to explore the option, but funding required to bring it to fruition has yet to be secured.

READ MORE: MLA Clovechok continues to work on reducing mortality rate of big horn sheep in Radium