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The bighorn sheep of Little Bald Ridge

The ranch manager told me yesterday that the three wolves who were shot last summer for cattle predation were terribly mangy.  Mange is the latest big problem with wolves in the GYC.  Mange is a mite that burrows into the skin of an animal, causing it to scratch.  It doesn’t kill the wolf, but in a harsh winter they can die with the thin coat.  I heard that mange was brought into this country early last century to kill coyotes but I haven’t been able to verify that.  One of the interns told me he thought that if a wolf can make it through one winter with the mite, he’ll do o.k. after that.  Maybe some kind of resistant or tolerance occurs.

Last summer I did have a fairly close encounter with a wolf.  That black wolf was beautiful and fluffy; no mange there.  I was walking through a lightly wooded area off-trail when my dog stopped about 8 feet in front of me and stared at something in a shallow gully off to my left.  The whole scene took place so fast I barely had time to register what was happening.  I looked to my left and saw a smallish black animal, about the size of my dog but fluffier, about 12 feet away.  I thought it was a small black bear.  By the time I realized it was a wolf (about a millisecond later!),  my dog was gone.  Usually I carry an electric zapper on my dog for just these occasions, but the zapper was still in California from my move.

I think my incessant screaming, and the fact that that wolf was a lone yearling, scared that wolf so much that she ran off, but not before she had thrown up the contents of her stomach which I found later after my dog returned and I had calmed down.  After what seemed like an eternity, Koda came prancing back, with a shit-eating grin on his face.  In the span of those few seconds, I had both surrendered to the idea that my dog might never come back, and if he did come back, decided he was going back to the trainer’s for some additional dog-to-dog training.

Wolves kill other canines in their territory.  Doesn’t matter if its a coyote, another wolf, or a dog.  They don’t eat it, just really tear it to pieces.  Being a dog owner in wolf country means you have to be responsible and watchful.  The ranch hands at a large ranch across the river told me that the winter is really the time they need to be careful.  Although they have wolf activity there year round from the Beartooth Pack, their property is full of elk in the winter and the wolves come down more and the nights are long.  Many of the wealthy ranches here have heated kennels for their dogs.  She told me a story that last winter the dogs were out of the kennel on a cold winter day.  Luckily she was working nearby because she looked over and there was a small pack surrounding their three dogs.  She ran over, made a big ruckus, and scared the wolves away.

Another local told me he was hiking with his five year old Black Lab.  The Lab ran over and behind a large bush where he was attacked by two wolves.  Luckily, the dog lived.  But the next year they were hiking off-trail and the lab started whining and came close to this man’s leg.  In the woods about 50 feet away, several wolves ran through.  Guess that dog learned a lesson.

Yesterday I planned to hike up Little Bald Ridge where there’s always sheep.  As I drove down the dirt road, I could see tracks of two large wolves that had run down the road early morning. Climbing up Little Bald Ridge They always like to use the thoroughfare of that spot in the valley to go between two ridges.  As I drove bye, I noticed one of the cows just had a new calf.

Bighorn Sheep are always up on that ridge.  I tried hiking up there earlier, but the wind and snow got to me.  Today was warm and windless though and some of the drifts would have melted.  As I hiked up to the buttes, I stopped 2/3 up in a small high meadow that looks out over the entire valley below.  No wind, the silence was incredible.  A herd of elk came through the trees farther up and stopped to watch me.  They’re always skittish.  They decided I was something to be afraid of and ran up the mountain and out of sight.

The hike isn’t Annapurna, but its a wind stopper for sure.  Its up, up and up and I hoped that when I got to the top the sheep would be in sight.  As I rounded the bend, there they were.  I kept counting, and then kept counting some more.  There were about 2 dozen sheep.  Mostly young and ewes, but I saw one nice ram.  The ewes kept watch while the ram lazed away–typical!  Bighorn are really ‘cute’.  Every time I go up there, they’re so curious.  Unlike the elk who always just run, the sheep stare and stare the closer you get.  If I didn’t have the dog, I suppose I could almost have walked up to them.

Bighorns depend on their elders to find their wintering grounds.  This small herd is right near the stone sheeptrap that I wrote about the other day.  Of course, to be called Sheepeaters, there had to be so many more sheep around here.  My understanding was that this country was thick with sheep, not just 2 dozen.  The interesting thing is that if you look around, there are plenty of exactly similar buttes right nearby where those sheep could have been.  But every year during the winter, this is the butte they go to.  You can count 100% on finding them there.  To me, this means they have an ancient honing device in them.  They must automatically go to the same forage that their ancestors went to.

I had been wondering for some time what happened to all those sheep.   After some research, I found Bighorns had no immunity to the diseases domesticated sheep carry.  Domesticated sheep grazing on open pastures and private lands were and still are, wiping out the Bighorn population.  And to the Bighorns, domesticated sheep just look like sheep; and being so friendly, Bighorns like to mix it up, unlike wolves.

The Bighorns on Little Bald had several yearlings, but I only saw one baby, at least so far.  After a while they got used to me and Koda, and went back to their business of eating.  The ram finally got curious enough to stand up for me to view him.  The baby ran with his mother.  The yearlings stayed in a small group with some ‘nurse ewes’ who watched over them, nuzzling occassionally.  I would have stayed for hours and watched them, but it was getting pretty cold and windy up there on the ridge.

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