Bighorn sheep deaths in Radium Hot Springs raise concerns about traffic in the area
Scientist estimates 15 bighorn sheep died in 2021, compared to the average 10 in previous years
Radium Hot Springs resident Nicole Trigg loves bighorn sheep, an animal her town is famous for that near its entrance sits a piece of public art in the form of steel ram horns.
So Trigg says she feels devastated to learn that more sheep were hit and killed on highways in 2021 compared to previous years, which she attributes to the increased traffic passing through the East Kootenay mountain village in B.C., home to more than 700 residents.
"I love these animals," she told host Chris Walker on CBC's Daybreak South. "They're just amazing creatures and you really develop deep affection for them when you see them day in and day out, and seeing one [dead] right in the middle of the highway just really impacted me."
Radium Hot Springs — also known as Radium — is located along highways 95 and 93, where traffic from the Trans-Canada Highway is being rerouted between Golden, B.C., and Castle Junction in Alberta as crews work on the Kicking Horse Canyon highway-twinning project.
When the project began in April last year, the town installed a massive public installation featuring steel ram horns — about 12 metres wide and nearly six metres tall — to greet the new influx of visitors and passersby.
But Trigg says the surge in traffic has led to the increase in deaths of the sheep. So in December, she created a Facebook page to raise awareness about the animals' precarious situation.
She says the actual number of deaths could be more than is being reported.
"Some that get impacted can then later wander away and die later on — their bodies aren't found," she said. "What I found is that there definitely has been an increase last year in particular."
While the B.C. government does not consider bighorn sheep endangered or threatened, they consider it to be "of special concern," meaning the sheep have characteristics that make them vulnerable to human activities or natural events.
University of British Columbia wildlife scientist Clayton Lamb, who studies the Kootenay bighorn sheep population, says there used to be about 250 sheep in Radium two decades ago, but he estimates there are only 140 this year.
Lamb also estimates 15 bighorn sheep died from car collisions last year, more than the average of 10 in previous years. He says the animals cross highways 95 and 93 to access the winter range on nearby golf courses, and stay on the highway to lick the salt brine used to de-ice the road.
"There's damage to people's vehicles when they hit the sheep, and so it's a lose-lose for people and sheep."
Lamb says a wildlife overpass — like those along Highway 1 — needs to be built to reduce the number of sheep being hit by cars.
"It is not cheap, but that's the solution we have to think about," he said. "Building an overpass that would allow the sheep to … cross their winter range as they did naturally without having to actually set foot on that highway."
In an emailed statement to CBC, the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure says it is aware of the recent increase in wildlife deaths along Highway 95 between Golden and Radium.
The ministry said there are more than 20 watch-for-wildlife signs on each direction of the route, as well as flashing LED and oversized signs warning for bighorn sheep, but did not say whether wildlife overpasses will be built.
But those signs aren't enough, says Trigg. She suggests the province install more signs, reduce speed limits and use de-icing materials other than salt brine on the roads to prevent sheep from entering the highway, particularly the three-kilometre stretch of the highway south of Radium where most of the sheep seem to have been hit.
LISTEN | Nicole Trigg warns of dwindling bighorn sheep in Radium due to car collisions:
With files from Daybreak South and Alya Ramadan