Hells Canyon Study Area
Hells Canyon was carved out by the Snake River, which starts in Wyoming and travels through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. It is one of the deepest river canyons in North America. In 1971, state wildlife agencies started trying to restore bighorns to their native habitat. Today, about 800 bighorn sheep live there. Although the current situation is an improvement from the time when there were no sheep in Hells Canyon, before restoration efforts began, the current number of about 800 sheep in the area is way less than the habitat (about 9,000 square miles) can support. No one knows exactly how many bighorn sheep were originally in Hells Canyon, but biologists think there may have been 10,000 or more before habitat degradation, hunting, and disease took their toll.
The Hells Canyon bighorn sheep project area encompasses more than 2 million hectares (5,617,062 acres) in the Snake River drainage ─ an area about twice the size of Yellowstone National Park, or about the size of the state of New Jersey. The project area extends from Lewiston, Idaho and Clarkston, Washington south along the Snake River to Brownlee Reservoir near Halfway, Oregon. Major river drainages include the Snake, Grande Ronde, Imnaha, and Salmon Rivers.
More than 1.3 million acres (24%) of the project area is potential bighorn sheep habitat, based on terrain, vegetation, and availability of water. Public lands make up 68% of this potential habitat. The primary public agency managing these lands is the U.S. Forest Service. Other managers of these lands are the states of Oregon, Idaho, and Washington, and the Bureau of Land Management. There are currently 16 bighorn sheep populations, or herds, in the project area.