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Part V – What’s Next for Bighorn Sheep

The vista from one sky island to another

Disease, domestic sheep proximity,  habitat degradation, human encroachment, water construction, predation—all part of the tangled web of problems for bighorns. But there are still other pressing problems for these animals that may have deeper consequences.

A big stumbling block biologists are facing is connectivity. Sky Islands and basin/range topography are comprised of isolated islands of habitat. Minimal population size for healthy genetic diversity seems to be around 200 animals to ward off most stressors. Historically, desert bighorns existed as metapopulations, large areas of basin/range where bighorns could roam and connect freely. A bighorn population wasn’t just one mountain top, but a wide swath of desert and mountains containing sub-populations inside of metapopulations. Harley Shaw commented to me that in looking at the history of desert bighorns in the Southwest, his view was that historically mountain ranges with these small populations were constantly winking out. Roaming instincts would push a few bighorns across desert floors to repopulate new ranges. Today that’s a near impossibility.

The entire state of Nevada alone was once considered one large population of bighorn sheep. “Moisture is so spotty, and we have so many rain shadows,” Mike Cox from Nevada Department of Wildlife relates, “that bighorns were very nomadic. They would chase green-up.”

I asked Cox about connectivity today . “It’s pretty sad, especially in Clark County which is the county of Las Vegas. We have islands, these sky islands of bighorn sheep that can’t go anywhere. They can’t roam. They can’t go on forays or they’ll get killed on 6 or 8 lane highways.”

Along with roads and barriers, there is the issue of a roaming bighorns coming into contact with domestic livestock and disease. Without a viable solution, many wildlife agencies resort to  periodic infusions of additional bighorns on a mountain. With new knowledge of disease strains, even that has its limitations. Amber Munig with AZGF told me the agency was looking at boosting a bighorn population southwest of the Colorado River. They tested both herds and although both have titers for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, the strains were different so they cancelled the translocation.

“Our translocation program is slower now because we don’t have as many areas to put them into and we’re very cautious about moving pathogens from one population to another,” Munig says. “We’re mostly supplementing existing populations at this point in time to ensure the genetics is still there and that becomes a concern when you have fragmentation, especially with roads that don’t allow them to cross between mountain ranges.”

Mike Cox is looking towards another answer. Some of the new research points to chronic asymptomatic disease shedders as the reason why a herd just cannot recover. The newest push is to find these shedders and kill them, called “test and remove.” Experiments in Oregon’s Hells Canyon by researcher Francis Cassirer shows promising results with a natural fade-out of the disease over time when carriers were removed in connected populations. But, as Cox points out to me again, “just because one bighorn gets one Mycoplasma strain doesn’t mean the next strain that comes along won’t be worse. There is no immunity that’s generated from one to the other.”

Hells Canyon Test and Remove update 2020. Presentation WSWG Disease Mgmt Venture by Francis Cassirer

Jessica Moreno with the Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection looks to wildlife linkages as a viable solution for healthy wildlife. Focusing mainly on Pima County around the Greater Tucson area, the Coalition partnered with Arizona Department of Transportation and others to plan a wildlife crossing. The crossing, one under and another over State Route 77, were installed simultaneous with the final bighorn translocation into the Catalinas in 2016. This first of several planned crossings connects the Catalinas to the Tortolita mountains. The next crossing is planned for Interstate 10, a more challenging endeavor, that would continue the wildlife passage from the Tortolitas to the Tucsons, the Silverbells, and through Saguaro National Park West into open desert country and Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation.

Moreno’s viewpoint is that bighorns face a tangled web of stressors, and many we might not even understand or recognize as stressors. But if we look at the bigger picture, giving the bighorns roam to connect, even if one population crashes, more bighorn sheep will come in to boost the population.

“By taking that landscape approach, you allow the animals the freedom to respond to stressors on their own, leaving that option available so they can respond to fire, disease or climate change. Their populations can crash but then rebound the way they need to. I like that about the work I’m doing to establish wildlife corridors and build wildlife crossings as it reaches across different species and gives a little bit more resilience to those populations that are dealing with different pressures.”

So far, with trail cameras placed in the area, State Route 77 crossing hasn’t produced any bighorn sheep using it over the last four years. But it still can be considered successful, with over 5,000 mule deer using it, along with javelinas, bobcats, coyotes, and lots of smaller species. But crossings elsewhere have been successful for bighorns. Wildlife crossings installed between Kingman and the Nevada state line on U.S. 93 between 2007 and 2011 documented use in the first four years by over 6.000 bighorns. Given the complexity of disease issues, it’s hard to know if these kinds of connections might solve the fresh genetic flow yet doom a population to new strains of disease.

The biggest unknown of all is our rapidly changing climate. Connective corridors undoubtedly help facilitate movement, allowing wildlife to adjust to habitat changes and water availability as their environment heats up. The totality of all the issues affecting bighorn sheep in particular is complicated and nuanced. Connective corridors might solve one piece of their Gordian knot but certainly not all.

____________

I made a pie chart of all the desert bighorn sheep stressors I’ve learned about

I grab my snowshoes, prepare a few snacks, and head up to a high mesa locals call Little Bald Ridge. In deep snow it’s difficult to follow the spines of the lower ravines that lead to the mountain top and the animal trail that hugs the hillside higher up would be obscured. But we’ve had little snow this winter and today with a clear sky, a light wind, and temperatures in the teens, it should only take an hour to climb to the wide butte.

I’m hoping to see our little band of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. They like the wind-swept meadows and craggy overlooks. The elk covet the area too, though the two species never group up. Wolves might be there, but their interest is in the scent of the elk, not the bighorns.

The final ascent leaves me a bit winded. The trees have disappeared. I always have to remember to watch for a large sinkhole beside the animal trail, which the trail swings directly alongside. The elk have trodden down the snow by its edges, but the hole is steep and deep and makes me nervous. I climb the last few hundred yards to the meadow expanse. The ground is cropped clean from the large elk herds who take advantage of this high windy spot that sweeps the snow clear. Even the sagebrush is just bare stems. As I clear the rise, I spot the bighorns. A small herd of ewes and lambs clasp the rocky cliff edges along the eastern rim. The meadows stretch to the west in a large expanse. Picking up my binoculars, I see a mixed age group of rams grazing in a hollow below.

I’ve been here before in winter without seeing bighorns or elk. The wind is usually in a howl, which highlights those moments of deep terrestrial loneliness. Without the bighorns, this top-of-the-world is not right. It’s definitely special to see the bighorns here today. Even so, these small groupings evoke both elation and sadness. I know that on these same ridges just a few hundred years ago, the native peoples who lived in these mountains watched herds of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of bighorns. These ones today are the hanger-oners, the bighorn sheep that survived the onslaught of white men and their livestock diseases. They are the toughest, yet they eye me with sweet docility, unafraid of my presence. I sit down a few hundred yards away and enjoy. Soon they pay me no mind, and go about their browsing business.

Bighorn sheep appear tough because of the rugged places they live, yet in reality they are soft creatures, whether we are speaking of their animal nature or their constitution. Just being with them I feel softer. I’d like my grandchildren to be able to experience their soft-tough nature. The fact that their presence on this planet coincides with ours implies we must care about their plight, not let it extinguish. That forces us to answer difficult ethical and moral questions. First, there is the money that supports these herculean efforts to help bighorns. Where does it come from? We’re talking about millions of dollars. All the western Fish and Game Agency bighorn sheep programs obtain one-quarter of their revenues from bighorn hunting licenses sold to the general public. The other three-quarters comes from Governor’s auctions and raffles. Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation gives me an example.

“In South Dakota, by statute, there are only two bighorn sheep licenses and they are resident only. That generates $550 a year in revenue. The first year they had [a governor’s tag], it sold for $102,000, and 100% of it went back to South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. So for $102,000 think what can you do for bighorn sheep versus $550.”

Very few bighorn hunting tags are sold per state every year. The situation with bighorns is just too precarious. What supports bighorn sheep programs are these tags that are up for bid at auctions, bought by the super wealthy.  For instance, Rick Smith, a retired telecommunications executive from Dallas, was the highest bidder in New Mexico’s auction and won seven tags over eight consecutive years to hunt bighorn sheep. He spent over $1 million dollars on those tags, 90% of which goes directly to New Mexico Game and Fish’s bighorn sheep enhancement program.

A skylining bighorn ewe

If we value bighorn sheep then there needs to be a way to fund programs that support bighorns other than through hunts and super tags. There is something obscene in the sole financial support to save bighorns throughout the West—native wildlife which are in the public trust—relying on a sliver of mega-rich trophy hunters. Additionally, being dependent exclusively on hunters for bighorn dollars creates a vicious cycle that pressures agencies to put more bighorns on every mountain so as to increase revenue. It also fuels extreme predator management programs like in New Mexico, where the culling of lions never ends despite bighorn herds that are thriving.

Funding is only one aspect. I think we have to be honest—the intensity of life-support programs that especially desert bighorn sheep need may soon be beyond justification. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions. Can we continue to transport water, not only because of the price tag, but as water itself becomes more precious in a thirsty Southwest, will the program even be sustainable. With the extreme drought conditions of 2020, Arizona hauled close to one million gallons of water, some even by helicopter.

Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae is here for the long run. Researchers are still puzzled how to control it and how to deal with emerging new strains. If we support separation of bighorns from domestic sheep and goats, are we willing to boycott wool from Western growers? Or to contribute cash to buy out wool growers and their public lands grazing allotments? While Bighorn Sheep NGO’s have already been actively raising dollars to help retire grazing allotments, isn’t this the responsibility of all Americans? Again, wildlife are in the public trust, therefor all of our responsibility.

It’s obviously absurd and expensive to keep plopping new bighorn sheep recruits into mountain ranges to enhance their gene flow. Should we instead adopt the “test and remove” program, where shedders are identified and culled? Do we give this kind of program a cut-off limit?

There is a point sometime in the future where we’ll have to cut bighorns loose. Yet we do have an obligation to the bighorns to do our best for them, to right so many of the wrongs they’ve suffered from our misdeeds. In my mind, perhaps our best is displayed in places like the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada or San Andres National Wildlife Refuge—immense tracts of mountain ranges surrounded by even larger tracts of wild areas completely off-limits to the public and livestock. Allow the bighorn populations to fluctuate naturally.

Instead of trying to fill every historically occupied mountain with bighorn sheep, we should consider a sub-population model, where suitable habitat can provide the bighorn sheep natural connective corridors to other nearby ranges. Land might need to be purchased to enlarge the protected area and grazing allotments retired. Initial habitat restoration would be completed, then we’d just let bighorns be bighorns, and lions be lions. This would be asking a lot of the general public; we all need to step up, not just hunters and the super-rich who can buy tags. An egalitarian effort is needed; an extreme push, perhaps a sprint rather than a marathon. For the bighorns sake, it’s time to decide if we are all willing to rise up to the task this implies—guardians of the ancient way of life of the bighorn sheep. At the very least, we owe it to the bighorns to take a hard look at ourselves and what we are willing to do.

Bighorn Sheep’s Gordian Knot Part I

When I began research for my book Ghostwalker, I learned about the messy politics surrounding reintroductions of bighorn sheep into isolated ranges of the Southwest where they once lived yet disappeared centuries ago. This noble endeavor to reintroduce a once thriving species to these sky islands and basin/range habitats had a dark underbelly. The idea was to eradicate mountain lions from the targeted range beforehand in order to enhance the sheep’s success.

Because bighorns are so fragile, because their restoration has been so fraught, I felt for the sheep. Yet the method seemed arcane at best: the lion through no fault of his own, doing only what lions do, traded for the success of a small herd on a tiny mountain range. The emotions, the circumstances, all very complicated. Therefore I left this vital piece out of my book as it begged for much further research. But the problem stayed with me. This year I decided to do a deep dive into the issue.

But to begin to wrap our heads around bighorn sheep issues, there is a lot to understand. Therefore this will be a series of posts. In my first post, I’ll begin in the area where I live with Rocky Mountain bighorns. All bighorns came to their present delicate circumstance through the same doorway, so beginning with my Rocky Mountain bighorns will lay a good foundation for understanding the more complex issues with desert bighorns.

First, my title. Truth be told I stole it. It’s been used to describe the relationship of mountain lions and desert bighorns. But having spoken with many people and done some research, I do not feel that is an adequate nor comprehensive description of what plagues bighorns. Therefore, here is a Gordian Knot as described by the dictionary:

The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (untying an impossibly tangled knot) solved easily by finding an approach to the problem that renders the perceived constraints of the problem moot.


In 2015, in the Tendoy Mountains southwest of Bozeman, Montana Department of Fish Wildlife and Parks did something unusual—they sold 311 hunt tags for any bighorn sheep in an area of only thirty sheep. Drawing a bighorn ram tag in any western state is akin to winning the lottery. Many hunters put in year after year and probably will never draw a tag in their lifetime. But this fall in Montana was different. Why? Because the Tendoy herd had been struggling for years with a respiratory disease complex with die-offs and low lamb recruitment. The heart-breaking answer the department came up with was to eliminate the entire herd and start anew. What hunters didn’t kill, the department would. Five years later, in 2020, the department announced they’d begin transplanting sheep into the Tendoys again, this time from Flathead Lake.

If you think this is a strange anomaly, it isn’t. Eliminating an entire herd that struggles with a disease complex called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (MOVI for short) has been done over and over in the West. But the fault lies with humans, not with the sheep.

Bighorn advocates have compared the disease to how European diseases decimated Native Americans. When European settlers brought their sheep and goats throughout the West, those animals were carriers of these bacterial diseases. Yet the domestics had built up immunity over thousands of years. But for our native bighorns, these were novel pathogens. Between disease, market hunting, habitat loss, and forage competition, native sheep populations plummeted. Original numbers throughout the Western states may have been as high as 1-2 million. By the early 20th century, they were at less than 25,000.

To restore bighorn populations where they were lost, restoration projects began in earnest in the 1960s. The most obvious idea was to move sheep. And that is what wildlife managers did, from one state to another, from one mountain to another, wherever sheep could likely thrive or had been in the past. Canada was a big exporter. So was Wyoming. It was a well-intentioned mass effort. Unfortunately, though somewhat successful, we only added to the problem. Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation described it to me succinctly,

“Somewhere in the future a geneticist is going to look at this and go ‘What the hell were they thinking back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s where they just blended so many sheep from so many sources’.

“The analogy I always use is a daycare. If you put a kid in a room with twenty other snotty-nosed kids, at the end of the day they’ve swapped about as much spit and goo as they can.”

In fact, it wasn’t until around 2007 or later that the lightbulb went off. Up until then, we just didn’t have the technology to understand what was really killing sheep.

When you listen to the wildlife disease experts, the terminology gets way into the weeds. When the question section comes up in zoom public meetings, the one always asked is “Can’t we just create a vaccine?” Yet that is why its called a “pneumonia complex”, because the entire issue is complex. MOVI is what HIV is to aids, it weakens the immune system, leaving it vulnerable to a host of other diseases that might not have otherwise killed a sheep. Biologists called it a “set-up artist”. The fine hairs in the respiratory tract called ciliary are damaged, the sheep are coughing, their lungs slowly destroyed. Some develop nasal tumors which make it harder to slough the disease off, becoming super spreaders (we are all familiar with that term now). Maybe they don’t even succumb to the disease, but being a life-long carrier, a typhoid Mary. The ewes that survive pass the disease along to their lambs through breast feeding. The herd then has adult death and zero recruitment. Usually the die-off of the entire herd, or a large portion, is swift.

Another major problem is that rams, looking for mates and to spread their genetics, do walk-abouts, usually in large circles encompassing 30-40 miles. Even if they begin their journey healthy, they might run into domestic lambs or goats, contract the disease, then bring it back to their herd. One ram came from Colorado into southern Wyoming, traveling over 400 miles and through three different bighorn sheep herds. Wyoming Game and Fish only knew this because the ram was collared and they were alerted by Colorado game agency. Sheep are gregarious—sheep like sheep. They don’t need to touch noses to get infected. They might even be kilometers away if the wind is right. Because Game and Fish had no idea if this ram came into contact with domestic stock, be it a large herd or a hobby rancher, they couldn’t take a chance. This one ram could cost hundreds of sheep lives and devastate entire herds. The ram was euthanized.

From Doug McWhirter 2020 presentation. Lamb Survival in three Wyoming ranges

The deeper microbiologists and veterinarians delve into the bighorn disease issue, trying to find the silver bullet cure, the messier the problem becomes. Although MOVI is a major culprit, there are a whole host of diseases. Although just in the last ten years its been accepted that domestic sheep and goats are carriers, there is now a question if cattle can add to the disease problems as well. Add to that mountain goats who are also susceptible and inhabit the same terrain, the problem thickens. Although we are clear disease is the main issue with sheep die-off, there are still major puzzles to be solved.

The Absaroka mountains have the only bighorn herd in the United States that has never been transplanted into nor out of. It is a pure, native herd with between 3500 and 4000 sheep. Although the historical evidence says that mountain goats were never native to Wyoming, a very few were transplanted in the 1960s for hunting, and have migrated into the Absarokas, sharing similar terrain with the native sheep. From a lot of blood work and studies, at last count in 2020 these native Absaroka sheep had the full compliment of pathogens. In other words, they were all carriers as far as the story told by the captured individuals. And although there have been some ups and downs in the population with disease outbreaks, their population remains stable. The mountain goats, which might present a problem in one area as they did recently in the Teton range, don’t seem to present a problem as far as researchers can tell, with the Absaroka herds. One explanation was given to me by Doug McWhirter, Wyoming Game and Fish biologist who has spent his career studying bighorns.

“Some of these pathogens could still be cycling from being introduced decades before. It tends to cycle in those animals. You could have pathogens that are residing in live animals that they pass down to offspring that don’t kill them under most circumstances, but if they are stressed by a weather event, then their immune systems can be comprised, and then at that point in time those pathogens either spread, or become more virulent and that’s when those impacts can take place.”

Raina Plowright and colleagues simple graph of MOVI crash in bighorn sheep population*

Even though there are no domestic sheep allotments on the forest today, the Beartooths were last retired as recently as 2001, and up untill the late 1980s, the headwaters of the Greybull River as well as Carter Mountain had domestic sheep on the forests. My neighbor who passed away a few years ago and grew up in this valley, born in 1926, once told me there were sheep herders all over the valley. I described a strange log structure I discovered in a nearby narrow drainage once. The drainage led to a high meadow with old campsites littered with rusty tin cans. “There were thousands of sheep up there in the summer. The log structure was probably a food cache.”

The Absarokas are littered with old Shoshone Indian sheep traps as well. Trapper Osborne Russell wrote in the 1830s how he saw thousands of sheep on the mountains surrounding the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone. Our native sheep have been exposed to domestics for a long time. Yet another pristine herd in Wyoming is crashing, probably soon to go extinct. The Whiskey Mountain herd in the Dubois area has never received sheep, but have provided many throughout the Western states. Whiskey mountain was a major supplier from the 1960s through 1990. In 1991 the die-offs began, in multiple stages, and the herd has never rebounded. Although both the Absaroka and the Whiskey Mountain herds carry the complete composite of pathogens, what makes one more resilient than the other? Biologists don’t know, but possibly environmental factors come into play—weather, food stresses, minerals like selenium, the jury is still out.

With so many unknowns, wildlife managers and conservation advocates are focusing on what they can control. Where it used to be predator controls (and still is in many respects. More on that later), the main focus has shifted to attempting to control separation between bighorns and domestic sheep and goats. That requires producers to acknowledge their sheep are the problem carriers, and then get them on board. One strategy has been offering to retire allotments, or switching allotments to non-problem areas.

Believe it or not, the expansion of grizzlies and wolves has presented real opportunities for bighorn sheep. Permittees in some circumstances are more willing to take the cash offers from private organizations to retire their grazing allotment. Yet the code of the West that enshrines livestock and private property owners has, in my opinion, strangled some of this progress. Take for instance the story of Josh Longwell. Longwell had long been in disputes with federal agencies over grazing, right-of-ways, and wildlife. As retribution, which some might call “wildlife terrorism”, Longwell abandoned grazing cattle on a high elevation grazing allotment in the Owl Creek Mountains and substituted domestic sheep, knowing they’d co-mingle with native sheep. For the Game and Fish, the risk was great, and an infected ram from the Owl Creeks that rubbed noses with Longwell’s sheep could walk-about over to the Whiskey Mountain herd and even north towards the Cody area. The Governor approved an emergency early season and licenses issued for up to 34 sheep. Longwell smugly declared this was an issue between private property and wildlife. And he may have characterized it correctly, and the government caved.

Organizations that have fought hard and long to restore bighorn sheep throughout the West have long tried to work cooperatively, versus litigating. And that is a good avenue to begin. But when it comes to the most sensitive species, an iconic species with multiple strikes against it that we are trying to restore, there are limits. Longwell represents one of those.

Kevin Hurley started our interview with a line that sums up the life of a bighorn sheep.

I go back to the early 80s, Tom Thorne, he was our wildlife vet back then. I’ll never forget the article he wrote back then in Wyoming Wildlife magazine. It was called ‘Born Looking for a Place to Die’. The whole point was they live in tough country but they’re pretty wimpy, respiratory speaking.

*Ecology Letters (Plowright, Raina K., et al. “Age‐specific infectious period shapes dynamics of pneumonia in bighorn sheep.” Ecology letters 20.10 (2017): 1325-1336.)


Stay tuned for Part II.

Bighorn Sheep–the poster child for extreme management

In a quick trip to Dubois area to see friends visiting from California, I took one friend to the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center.  Dubois is the nearby town next to the Whiskey Mountain Sheep Preserve.  Whiskey Mountain holds the most Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in North America, over 1000.  The Preserve is a seed population for sheep transplants all over the Rockies.

My friend is an outdoors person, avid hiker, and has been to the Rockies to backpack many times.  And although she has seen bighorn sheep, like most people she knew little of their plight.  The Center tells the story well, in pictures, of the dire situation bighorn sheep are in.  As I’ve talked about before, bighorn sheep are susceptible to domestic sheep diseases when they co-mingle.  Although it’s been over 150 years since domestic sheep grazing on the West, our native sheep just don’t have the immune systems to fight off these disease.

Consider this quote from Journal of a Trapper by Osborne Russell in 1835. Russell was in the Dunoir area, northwest of Dubois, in the Absarokas.

We left the stream and crossed the valley in a NE direction ascended a high point of mountain thickly covered with pines then descended over cliffs and crags crossing deep gulches among the dark forests of pines and logs until about noon…On the North and West were towering rocks several thousand feet high which seem to overhang this little vale–Thousands of mountain Sheep were scattered up and down feeding on the short grass which grew among the cliffs and crevices: some so high that it required a telescope to see them.

Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir

Jade Lake near Bonneville pass in the Dunoir

I saw no sheep in the Dunoir when I was there dayhiking.

After my friend left the Center, she had a poignant remark that got me thinking.

“It’s take so much effort and money just to maintain the wildlife we have today.”

Take the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep for example.  A wonderful documentary that won awards, available on the link here, is Counting Sheep: Restoring the Sierra Nevada Bighorn.  The doc chronicles over twelve years the immense efforts to restore this tiny population (less than 300 at the time) of iconic bighorns.  Successive transplants and removal of grazing domestic sheep worked for a while, but then cougars, who have always preyed on bighorns, moved in and the population began to dwindle.  So the researchers approached the Cougar Network to enlist their help and support, as cougars are not allowed to be legally hunted in California.  At first they resisted any cougar kills, but then they saw the situation and SURGICAL cougar kills, killing of cougars that were VERIFIED had killed sheep, was supported.  Slowly the population is growing again.Cougar

This extreme disruption was initially caused by human predation and domestic sheep diseases–not by cougars kills.  But now a lot of attention and management is needed just to begin to restore what once was.  When I was in southern CA in the desert a few years ago, the bighorn sheep habitat was extremely endangered, not due to cougars, but to new housing developments.Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep

“It’s take so much effort and money just to maintain the wildlife we have today.”

My friend’s statement applies to all of our wildlife today–predators especially, but in many areas, elk and deer as well.

When multiple use increases, so does conflict and disruption to wildlife.  I wanted to visit the Dunoir because although it is considered a Special Management Area, snowmobiling and mountain biking still continue.  This year the Shoshone National Forest will break out it’s 20 year plan.  No new wilderness is being proposed.  If the Dunoir were proposed for Wilderness (even though Congress still has to pass a new Wilderness Area), stricter rules would apply.  This is prime grizzly bear habitat and elk calving grounds.  Bears are highly disturbed by motorized and unmotorized use i.e. bicycles.

And my friend is correct; unfortunately it takes a lot of effort to just maintain what we have.  Let’s put in that effort.

Brooks Lake Western Dunoir area

Brooks Lake
Western Dunoir area

One last note:  You may have noticed my new book cover in the upper section of the blog pages.  The book The Wild Excellence:  Notes from Untamed America (Wordsworth Publishing) will be out this month in August and available directly from Amazon.  It chronicles my move and wildlife adventures in this wild area, one of the last intact ecosystems in the temperate world.  I’ll have more on this in later blog posts.

Bighorn Sheep, Sheep Eaters and Soapstone

I’ve been thinking about sheep and the peoples whose diet centered around  them.

For quite some time, I”ve wanted to make an authentic Sheep Eater soup with a steatite bowl .  Since I knew I wouldn’t be able to buy one, the only solution was to make one myself.  Steatite is another word for soapstone, and the Sheep Eater Indians would quarry the stone and make bowls from them.  Few of these bowls have been uncovered , probably because they broke over time.  It appears they were passed down through the women, and possibly made by women as well.  The men might have quarried and shaped the starting blocks.

The bowls, being heavy, were  left at campsites, stashed for use when the peoples came back to the area.  Most of the sites seem to be very high up, above 3000 meters.  That is because these quarries are located high in the mountains.  The bowls were carved right close to the quarries, which makes sense considering how heavy the rock is.

Soapstone, or steatite, bowls were used for cooking Sheep Eater stews consisting of sheep, bulbs and forbs.  The bowls could be placed right in the hot coals.  Once removed from the fire, the bowls stayed hot for a long time.  One of the most difficult items for native peoples in any culture to obtain were containers.  Containers were prized possessions, whether they were constructed of fiber, pine needles, gourd or rock.  I’m sure that is why these bowls were passed down generation to generation.

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

YNP Archives Sheep Eater bowl

Last year I set about trying to find a quarry.  I knew there was one in Dillion MT.  Since I was on my way to California for December, I thought I could find one there.  California has several soapstone or Talc quarries but none of them were operating.  I found a woman in Northern California who imported various stones for carving.  She sold me a block of Brazilian soapstone, warning me that a lot of soapstone has asbestos in it and hers didn’t.

In geology language, rocks are graded on a scale of 1-10 for their hardness qualities, with soapstone being a 1 and diamond a 10.  Since I thought all soapstone was equal, I began work on this block of brazilian stone.  After several months, lots of drill bits, dremel bits, chisels, etc., I had made little progress.  Apparently soapstone itself can have a variety of hardnesses.  This brazilian stone was awfully hard, and didn’t have the ‘soapy’ consistency that is associated with soapstone.  Complaining about my trials to a local friend, he immediately made a few calls and found me an original Wyoming piece of soapstone, quarried naturally from a secret spot out of Tensleep in the Big Horns.  The block he gave me had a strange shape, difficult to cut a piece out of for a bowl, but I managed.

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

Odd shaped Wyoming soapstone block

I’d seen a video where Richard Adams said it took about 30 hours to make a finished bowl.  With the Brazilian stone, there was no way I was going to make a bowl in that time.  I’d already invested more than that and hadn’t come far.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began working on the Wyoming block.  But the going was easy, and in about twenty hours I had a decent bowl that I could call finished enough to cook in.

My almost finished bowl

My almost finished bowl

DSCN1393

Requires lots of elbow grease. I learned a lot working both pieces of stone

Here is a photo from the Park achives outside of Gardiner (worth making an appointment to see the new building) of what Adams calls a pre-form, or an unfinished bowl.

YNP archives

YNP archives pre-form bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

YNP archives unfinished bowl

Yesterday, after working on my bowl for several hours, I took a hike up nearby Margarite draw.  Last year I found a cougar den up there and I wanted to see if there had been any occupation this year.  As I hiked higher and higher through the trees, I spotted a low saddle and headed for it.  At the ridgeline the view of the Absarokas was breathtaking. Absaroka spring 2013 I saw a few elk grazing down below, but I had a hunch if I glassed these rocky hills I might see some sheep.  Sure enough, a group of ewes was farther along the ridgeline.  With the wind in my face, I figured I might be able to sneak up on them and get some good photos.  What little I know about bighorn sheep is that when spooked they always go higher.  So in approaching a group, if one approaches from higher up, they rarely look up to spot you.  I tried the tactic and sure enough, it worked fairly well.Bighorn sheep Young bighorn sheep

At the end of my several hour hike, I ran into the herd again, now grazing on the other side of the hills.Bighorn sheep

Pretty soon I’ll try out my new bowl.  The green-up is beginning and I saw some Pasque flowers.  Soon there will be Spring Beauties to add to my soap along with other greens.  A friend who shot a Bighorn sheep a while back will give me a bit of mutton to add so I can make an authentic Sheep Eater stew in my homemade steatite bowl.

What do Americans find Sacred? Bighorn Sheep, the Winds and Selenium

The Light in High Places. Wow, this is a great book by Joe Hutto.  I love the Wind River Mountains so I took this book from the library with that in mind.  But I was surprised how beautiful and poetic Huttos’ prose is.  Although a trained biologist, Hutto is a fantastic writer who expresses his feelings in a rhythm that is natural to Wyoming and close to the pace of the high country of the Winds.

Hutto teams up with John Mionczynski (who has been studying the Bighorn Sheep of Whiskey Mountain since the 70’s) to understand more fully why our native Sheep are in so much trouble.  Starting sometime in and around 2001, he spends his summers living high up on Middle Mountain, in a tent, above timberline at 12,000′, alone.  He sets up rainfall catches, watches ewes, lambs and rams all day, encounters bears, wolverines and a lone black wolf.  He comes to know, summer by summer, each sheep by sight, is accepted by them as almost another herbivore who can mingle among them, and fully describes what its like to live in this rarified environment day by day.

The middle of the book digresses and describes Hutto coming to Wyoming in the 70’s.  He lived on Red Canyon Ranch and worked cattle before the Nature Conservancy bought it; rode and hiked all over the area around Lander and the southern Winds; and tells some wonderful tales of iconic cowboys he knew.

Strangely enough, Hutto and Mionczynski’s findings about Bighorn Sheep were not what I supposed. Although the sheep are vulnerable to domestic sheep diseases, the difficult and puzzling downhill plight of the bighorn sheep is not so simple as exposure to domestics.  The Whiskey Mountain sheep herd do not come in contact with domestic sheep yet their numbers are shakey.  Why?  Many ungulates need Selenium to stay healthy.  Ewes that have experienced selenium deficiencies as lambs will tend toward early mortality, contributing fewer lambs to the herd.  Young lambs require relatively high doses of Se to avoid a form of nutritional muscular dystrophy.  The lamb’s body mines the bones in search of Se when there are deficiencies, causing the lamb to become weak, crippled, have a weakened immune system, and predisposing it to pneumonia and other diseases, as well as predators.

So, what is suddenly causing this lack of Se in these high pristine environments?  Hutto’s answer, from their research, is acid rain.  The rainfall is so acid all summer long, between 3.8 to 4.2 (normal should be on the side of slightly acidic side of neutral which is 7.0), that this in turn changes the soil chemistry which changes the uptake in minerals and nutrients in the surrounding vegetation.  In Hutto’s words:

“The term acid rain is a simplistic epithet that in reality involves not merely a good dosing of nitric or sulfuric acid, but also a veritable witch’s brew of accompanying chemistry including the entire spectrum of heavy metals resulting from fossil fuel and other industrial emissions.  Each time a drop of water falls, these mountains are being doused with a chemistry that includes not only acid in the form of nitrate and sulfur compounds, but could include mercury and other toxic elements that can continue migrating up the food chain.  It is the snow, rain, and glacial meltwater from these mountains that feed the Wind River in its entirety, and the Wind River in turn fills the Boysen Reservoir…”

Are they the 'canaries in the coal mine'?

Supporting their theory was the fact that when a long term drought came to the Winds in the mid-2000’s, the herd became healthier and produced more healthy lambs.  Less acid rainwater, more normal levels of selenium in the surrounding vegetation.  Yet drought also produces less available water in these high places.  A vicious cycle.

This book is science and beautiful prose, but mostly it’s Hutto’s expression of his love for Wyoming, its wildness, and the sheep.  You will not be overwhelmed by facts and figures, but his easy personal style will draw you in.

“Because of the oil and gas boom, formerly protected areas are being opened to new roads and drilling.  Most disturbing perhaps in our immediate vicinity is the opening of formerly inaccessible areas of the Red Desert by the Bureau of Land Management to new drilling operations in spite of the objections and desperate cries of the concerned residents of Wyoming.  The Red Desert is not only the highest desert in North America but a great fragile expanse characterized by a multitude of unique geological, ecological, paleontological, historical, and prehistorical features.  The greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the Wind River Mountains, and the Red Desert are the richest and most environmentally diverse expanse of wilderness left in the lower forty-eight states–the jewel in the crown of American environmental conservation.  Any large-scale industrial development in this remaining wonder of the natural world that contains meager petroleum reserves can only beg the question, What in fact do Americans find sacred.”

Hutto and Mionczynski’s preliminary findings are a warning to all Americans and especially to those of us who live, play and work here.  We live here because of this incredible Land that we love and its wildlife.  Just in my area, politicians are pushing the BLM to open the entire Big Horn Basin to oil and gas drilling.  Right now, we have a healthy Sheep herd in the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Here’s another reason to rethink this kind of avaricious planning.

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.