Monday, Oct. 5, 2009 | 1:55 a.m.
Life is good for the desert bighorn sheep in the River Mountains surrounding Boulder City.
Maybe too good — which has prompted concern from Boulder City officials as traffic in the area they roam is set to increase in November 2010 with the opening of the new Hoover Dam bypass bridge.
Most mornings between May and September, at about 9 a.m., dozens of the 200 or so sheep that live in the rocky hills come to Hemenway Park for a grassy green breakfast, said Martin Olson, an education coordinator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. The lush grass provides most of their water and food needs, then offers a nice spot for them to settle in for their morning routine.
It’s a pretty cozy life: Because their home is so close to Boulder City and the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, this herd is off-limits to hunters. Residents who love to come watch them generally keep a respectful distance -- the rams’ long, circular are a cause for caution.
Unfortunately, the grass looks greener on the other side of the trees that separate the park from U.S. 93. That grass covers the flood channel just 20 to 30 yards from the highway, and it draws the desert bighorns close to the traffic that is expected to multiply once the Hoover Dam bypass bridge opens in November 2010, Boulder City animal control officials say. The opening of the bridge will allow tractor-trailers, which are now detoured through Laughlin, to take U.S. 93 through Boulder City, adding an estimated 2,000 or more trucks a day, according to projections from the Nevada Department of Transportation.
The prospect of sheep and heavy trucks concerns Boulder City Police Chief Thomas Finn and Animal Control Officer Mary Jo Frazier.
“I think there will be more fatalities, sheep fatalities,” Frazier said. “You mix cars and sheep, and there can be human fatalities as well.”
During the summer, Frazier finds herself chasing sheep from the highway almost every day, she said.
“Last week, I had three crossing the road. One was running full-tilt down the road in the middle of traffic,” Frazier said. “That’s a road hazard.”
Through September, Animal Control had 51 calls this year of sheep near the road.
When Finn goes to his home near Hemenway Park for lunch, he said, he inevitably will find sheep near the highway and use his unmarked police car to herd them back to the park. He uses the car’s airhorn to startle them and get them to move, he said.
“We’ve had some hit,” he said. About one sheep a year gets killed on the highway, Finn said.
A greater danger, Finn said, is when motorists see the sheep grazing by the side of the road and they pull over to take pictures.
“People getting out is a traffic hazard,” he said. “Once we get trucks and buses, it will be even more dangerous, not only for the sheep, but also for the motorists.”
The number of sheep in the herd is a problem, Frazier said. The Department of Wildlife thins the herd every couple of years by relocating some of the animals to other habitats in the state, Olson said, but it’s hard to keep up.
“They breed heavily because of the food supply,” Olson said. “These guys have it made.”
Frazier noted, “They repopulate whatever (officials) take out. There’s usually twice as many back in spring.”
Another problem is that the sheep pretty much do what they want.
One ewe has become so accustomed to humans that Frazier said, “I can almost go up and touch her on the nose.”
So her efforts to move the sheep to higher ground are usually short-lived, Frazier said.
“I push them back up to the park, and by the time I’m gone, they are headed back down the road again,” she said.
Department of Wildlife officials are not overly concerned about the increase in traffic on U.S. 93, Olson said, reasoning that the extra traffic will cause congestion and slow the vehicles down.
“It’s easier to stop,” Olson said.
Finn and Frazier don’t buy that argument. The sheep still attract bystanders who stop to take pictures and create a traffic hazard.
The most effective solution would be to remove the grass in the flood channel that draws them toward the highway, Public Works Director Scott Hansen said, and the city has considered that.
But the issue is more complicated than just tearing up some grass, he said.
“The grass provides flood protection,” he said. Without it, floodwater would erode the channel, and it would no longer be able to do its job.
The grass would need to be replaced with riprap or concrete, an expense the city does not have in its budget, he said.
“We are a few hundred thousands dollars short,” he said, adding with a smile, “We are taking donations.”