For nearly 20 years, Bulgarian artist Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude, (who passed away in 2009) have been planning an art installation that would cover nearly six miles of the Arkansas River in Colorado with "silvery, luminous fabric panels," much like projects the duo have erected in Miami, New York City's Central Park and other areas. But for almost as long as Christo has planned the $50 million "Over the River" project, the idea has been opposed by environmental groups who fear the harm to wildlife could significantly outweigh the artistic benefits.

A draft environmental impact statement drawn up in 2010 called the potential damage to wildlife "significant." Now the Colorado Wildlife Commission has weighed in, voting to urge federal officials to reject the proposal. "If there was one overreaching concern of the public, it probably would be bighorn sheep," Commission Vice Chairman Robert Streeter told The New York Times. "In terms of data and looking at the science, they're the most likely species to be impacted."

Bighorn sheep, the state animal of Colorado, are not an endangered species, but overhunting and competition from domesticated sheep caused populations to crash in the late 19th century. Concentrated efforts — most famously by the Boy Scouts of America — helped the bighorn to recover. Today, about 70,000 bighorn live in the U.S., and 6,900 live in Colorado.

The Colorado Wildlife Commission advises the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and its opinion could play an important role in the federal government's approval of the project, the Times reports.

The commission did not think that Christo's project would be dangerous for the bighorn sheep, only that it could keep them away from the water. Others say it could be much more dangerous for the sheep. "Sheep are a stress-sensitive species and are susceptible to large die-offs when conditions are not favorable," wrote Daniel J. Larkin, former president of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.

In an email to the Times, Christo said he has adapted the "Over the River" construction schedule to accommodate the sheep and offered funding for habitat enhancement projects. According to a statement on the project's website, "Christo and Jeanne-Claude have always considered wildlife and the natural environment to be among the Arkansas River Valley's greatest resources ... The construction and viewing periods have been carefully scheduled around breeding and nesting seasons. As an added precaution, construction buffer zones will be created near potentially active eagle nests and around designated sheep areas."

"Over the River" is being privately funded through the sale of Christo's preparatory drawings. It is expected to bring in more than $120 million in tourism revenue.

A final decision from the federal government on the project is expected in August or September. If approved, "Over the River" would be exhibited for two weeks in August 2014 following a two-year construction period.

Christo's big art vs. bighorn sheep
Would the famed artist's long-planned "Over the River" project harm bighorn sheep in Colorado?