Bighorn sheep have been the talk of the town all week. Our treasured species is under threat for unknown reasons, and their numbers seem to be dwindling.
As if to add injury to insult, three ewes met a gruesome death under the wheels of a car last week at one of their favorite hangouts, beside the red rocks at the reservation boundary. Presumably the driver didn’t know enough to watch out for the curly-horned beauties at that location. Or just ignored the warning sign.*
One day last spring, traveling westbound, I ran across (not into!) this small group of them at the same big curve, right where the highway drops and bends toward Dubois. Troubled by the speed of traffic coming toward me (and them), I stopped the car and tried to herd the sheep over the fence and back toward the hills.
Foolish waste of time. I knew they’d return the moment I got back into the car and went on.
The herd around Whiskey Mountain declined last year by more than 100 from a population of 800, according to a report at the annual meeting of the National Bighorn Sheep center last month. The herd numbered nearly 1,000 five years ago.
This should have been a good year for them, with lots of forage. But the ewes were generally thinner, and very few lambs are on the scene. Nobody knows why.
The folks in this picture, most of them volunteers, aren’t trying to rescue and airlift an injured sheep. (If only we could do that!) They had captured it for a quick physical exam, as part of a sheep count last year.
Another count is under way up-mountain as I write these words. Everyone hopes that the biologists merely missed some in their last survey, and that today’s count will be more encouraging.
We always slow way down when rounding the curve by the red rocks, if only in hopes of catching a glimpse of the elusive sheep. I’ve also learned the spots where the deer hang out to graze by the highway on either side of town. Driving near sunset, you always have to strain your eyes all the way from the red rocks to Stoney Point to avoid hitting deer that might suddenly decide to cross the road.
We’re always watching for game anyway. It’s a very popular pastime here, especially during this heavy winter when we have seen many moose picking their way through snow up to their knees. Many conversations begin with an account of which animal or herd one has seen recently (or this time last year), and exactly where and when.
We not only enjoy seeing our neighbors on the hoof; we also like to keep track of the tracks that show where they have been. It’s only good sense to know who’s ahead of you when you’re hiking, after all.
Some people even install webcams out back to see who has visited at night. This mountain lion turned up just across the highway a few months ago. We’d never see him in the flesh, of course.
At dusk few weeks ago, already alert for deer as I headed westbound back from town, I came up behind a car that was barely crawling around the curve beside the roadcut at Stoney Point. As I got closer, I saw that the driver was following a herd of deer, headed by a buck which (I wrote “who,” and then changed it) was marching the others smartly up the middle of the highway, toward the blind curve.
The speed limit slows from 70 to 55 just there. It’s the first slowdown for cars that have sped down the pass coming from Jackson. Whether it’s the approach of journey’s end, or haste to get on with the drive, we know that many drivers go quickly around this sharp curve.
With great courage and selflessness, the driver in front of me had pulled partway into the left lane at the blind part of the curve, obviously hoping to herd the deer off the road onto the right side. By the grace of God, no one was coming in the opposite direction, and he succeeded. The herd climbed the steep slope to the right, and I pulled off to turn on my flashers, hoping to keep the deer uphill and to alert oncoming drivers.
Another fool’s gambit, of course. I had to get home, and I can’t spend my life protecting my four-footed neighbors. But I’m very pleased to learn that WYDOT, Game & Fish, and a bunch of nature and wildlife groups are hosting Wyoming’s Wildlife and Roadway Summit in Pinedale in late April “to address the effects of roads on wildlife and to minimize wildlife/vehicle collisions.”
It’s none too soon. Already we’re seeing signs of spring, and tourist season is just around the … well, the corner. And traveling fast.
© Lois Wingerson, 2017
You can see new entries of Living Dubois every week if you sign up at the top of the right column at www.livingdubois.com.
*POSTSCRIPT: Our local Game & Fish warden got back to me with details after I posted this. The vehicle was a semi trailer-truck. The driver was the person who called it in. He said that there had been traffic approaching in the other lane, so he couldn’t swerve at all. Just after the cab passed the ewes, for some reason they bolted and got caught under the wheels of the trailer.