University of Calgary researchers witnessed two incidents of poaching while observing big horn sheep in Sheep River Provincial Park in October.
The first took place Oct. 18, when a pair of research assistants who were capturing sheep to fit with GPS collars saw four people scoping the group of sheep from a nearby ridge. Although the poachers fired, no sheep were injured. After the researchers called the park conservation officers, three of the men were charged with poaching animals in a provincial park.
U of C assistant professor Dr. Kathreen Ruckstuhl has been studying the population for 14 years.
"Inside that park they're supposed to be protected by law, but [the poachers] just shot," she said.
The second incident led to a fatal injury of one of the sheep Oct. 30. Again, the shooting was during the day and witnessed by research assistants who called the conservation officers. The man involved was also charged. The maximum penalty the men can face for poaching in a provincial park is $50,000, a year in jail or both.
According to Ruckstuhl, ram poaching normally occurs in the park only every year or two.
"We've of course had poachers killing sheep inside the park, but never so blatantly in the daylight with people by, watching," she said. "That was one of the big concerns, that people could get hurt, but also that it might be increasing."
Poaching and hunting are not the only concerns in the decline of the population, Ruckstuhl mentioned. The Sheep River population has been in decline for almost 25 years, partially due to pneumonia and cougars that started eating the sheep in the '90s.
"Right now we're down to 12 rams, 13 females and a few offspring," Ruckstuhl said. "Maybe 35 sheep left in that population and that's from close to 160 sheep."
Although Ruckstuhl believes that the government might be hard-pressed to change hunting regulations, she thinks some solutions are within reach.
"You have problems with tourists coming in with their dogs and they chase after the sheep because they're not on a leash," she said. "So the sheep can go down a canyon and break a leg because when they see a dog they react as if it was a predator and they just run like mad. It is something that could easily be regulated."