Over the past 30+ years Dave’s passion towards conservation of the natural environment has been unwavering. While very difficult to pull out a particular initiative that stands above the rest, one theme that emerges is the conservation of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.
It is estimated that there were as many as two million bighorns in North America at the beginning of the 19th century, but today there are only about 70,000. This precipitous decline is thought to have taken place mainly between 1850-1900, and was caused by disease introduced by domestic sheep, the loss of habitat to livestock and excessive hunting by humans. Also, human activity such as the construction of roads, urban development and recreational development has impinged on bighorn territory and forced them from prime habitat, interrupted migration routes and split larger herds into smaller ones (Canadian Geographic, 2002).
The East Kootenay is home to significant populations of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. A portion of the East Kootenay Bighorn Sheep population’s winter at high elevations (Elk Valley), however most come down into the valley bottoms. The herds that winter in the valley bottoms (from the southern to northern) include: Galton (Grasmere), Wigwam, Elko, Bull River, Wildhorse, Premier, Canal Flats, Radium and Golden. All of these populations have seasonal overlap with their adjacent neighbour during certain periods of the year. Many of these valley bottom wintering ranges are adjacent to agricultural farms. This vicinity to agricultural farms is okay if the rancher only raises cattle and horses, however if they have domestic sheep, there are significant risks. The problem occurs as a result of the 2 species being very closely related and both being susceptible to the same diseases. The issue that arises is that domestic sheep have developed immunity to these diseases and wild sheep have not. The resulting condition is pneumonia and high parasite levels, ultimately leading to death. (FWCP, 2014).
However, due to local conservation efforts largely spear-headed by Dave White over the past 30+ years, sheep herds in the East Kootenays have been spared the major impact of these events.
Dave is currently the volunteer coordinator of the Domestic Wild Sheep Separation Program which has secured funding for immediate separation for the most imminent threats. Through this role, Dave is looking at getting regional support for re-zoning that would require the separation of domestic sheep from wild sheep habitat.
Through his work with the Canal Flats Wilderness Club, Dave and his wife have worked hard to avoid the devastation to Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They were so successful that they were able to not only maintain populations, but to have local populations thrive in order to allow the relocation of about 250 sheep from the East Kootenays to other regions in British Columbia and the United States to help those areas replenish their populations.
Dave has been the chair of the Bighorn Sheep Committee for the East Kootenay Wildlife Association from 1987 – present. He has also been a member of Rocky Mountain Trench Bighorn Sheep Committee representing the East Kootenay Wildlife Association to work on ways to tackle this problem at a provincial level.
As a result of his efforts, the East Kootenay Wildlife Association was awarded the BC Wildlife Federation Award for Best Conservation Project in 2001. This was a 5-year $5,000,000 Bighorn Seep habitat and population assessment project which has since been used as a prescription and assessment tool by the BC Fish and Wildlife Branch.
More recently, Dave was very influential in the successful purchase of the highly acclaimed ‘Lot 48’ conservation land acquisition by the Nature Conservancy of Canada, protecting wildlife habitat while providing a buffer between development pressures and prime sheep habitat. This project was celebrated widely as a win-win for conservation and the community.
Despite all of this work, there are still hurdles to overcome in order to eliminate the major threats to bighorn sheep in this region. Dave continues to advocate strongly for this cause, and is working hard to move forward legislation that would allow for the separation of domestic and wild sheep.
Click here to read more about BC’s Wild/Domestic Sheep Separation Program.