DECKERS, Colo. – State wildlife officials recently released 12 more Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep into the recovering landscape of the 2002 Hayman fire – Colorado’s largest in terms of area at 138,000 acres.
Sparked by a disgruntled U.S. Forest Service employee during one of the state’s most severe droughts, the Hayman fire also destroyed 133 homes and caused $40 million in damages. Last summer’s Fourmile Canyon fire surpassed Hayman in terms of property damage, with 169 homes destroyed near Boulder.
Both fires prompted vigorous debate about how best to manage state, federal and private lands in the wildland-urban interface where residential and commercial development meets vast swaths of forests stressed by drought and ravaged by mountain pine bark beetles.
Restoration efforts have been intense along the South Platte River Canyon just southwest of Denver where the Hayman blaze roared during the summer of 2002, turning the skies over Denver a sooty gray. The fire caused massive erosion problems along critical streams and rivers that supply drinking water to Denver and its suburbs.
Now Colorado Division of Wildlife officials say the fire and its subsequent restoration has actually improved habitat for some species. Last year, CDOW also released 12 bighorn sheep in the Hayman area.
According to CDOW, by scouring trees off of the area’s granite outcroppings, the Hayman fire restored historic habitat for Colorado’s state animal, the Rocky Mountain bighorn. CDOW biologists this month released a band of 12 young bighorn sheep back onto Thunder Butte near the Four Mile State Wildlife Area on the eastern side of the canyon. Biologists believe most of the nine females, or ewes, are pregnant and hope the new herd will increase in numbers in the coming years.
“Bighorn sheep are one of our most prized wildlife species and this was historically bighorn range,” said Janet George, a senior terrestrial biologist with the CDOW’s Northeast Region. “It is gratifying to be able to do something good by bringing them back to a place like this.”