Virginia Tech wildlife sciences professor improves sheep counts in Grand Canyon

Blacksburg, Va., Sept. 17, 2002 -- Virginia Tech wildlife sciences professor Michael Vaughan has turned the process of counting sheep into a science, although not as a sleep aid. To determine population density, lamb production, and survival rates of the Grand Canyon bighorn sheep population, Vaughan spends four weeks a year rafting down the Colorado River taking scientific counts of sheep.

Vaughan uses a land-based population research technique to look at the age and sex distribution of the Grand Canyon's bighorn sheep. This lamb-to-ewe ratio gives Vaughan an idea of how well reproduction is going for a given year. "Basically, I count and estimate the lamb-to-ewe ratio in April right after they are born," explains Vaughan. "Then, I come back three-to-six months later and do a recount of the area." This data provides Vaughan with an analysis of the animals' survival rates, which is critical information for wildlife managers.

The research requires a two-week long rafting trip twice a year down the Colorado River. He, along with participating Virginia Tech graduate students, survey the 200-mile stretch by land, followed by a helicopter count. This method helps Vaughan figure in any miscalculations or errors in his estimates.

"Prior to our research, there had always been strict helicopter restrictions in the Grand Canyon," explains Vaughan. "As a result, the National Park Service had no information on the Grand Canyon's sheep population." While the restrictions are still in place, the Park Service allowed Vaughan's research team to fly low enough in the Canyon to count sheep.

It was not very difficult to find graduate students willing to participate in this research project. "We spent the days hiking up the surrounding canyons in search of hidden sheep," adds Virginia Tech fisheries and wildlife sciences graduate student, Daniel Lee. "The nights were spent camping under the stars."

A group of 18-20 other scientists joined Vaugha

Contact: Michael R. Vaughan
Virginia Tech

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