One day last week, some bighorn sheep wandered into town. This was astonishing.
Many deer live in town year-round, but the sheep live up-mountain, off in the wilderness. The Bighorn Sheep Center offers guided tours up Whiskey Basin to look for them, but they’re not supposed to be easy to find.
People are used to spotting them on the cliffs across the river from the Painted Hills subdivision, or sometimes down on the highway by the red rocks at the edge of the Reservation. They may be the mascot for the school’s sports teams, but we don’t expect them to show up down here in town.
I was inside the hardware store when they came past. “Aren’t those sheep?” someone gasped, and we went outside. There they were, ambling unconcerned across the slope beyond the yard
Many people told me they had never seen the sheep in town before. Someone in the supermarket had a great shot of the herd behind the big brown “Dubois Wyoming” sign beside the highway east of town. Later they were spotted in the cemetery.
Why did they come down to visit? Sara Domek, the Executive Director of the Sheep Center, chuckled at the question, in the same bemused way a parent might talk about a toddler: Who knows what they’ll get into their heads?
It’s anybody’s guess, she said. Maybe they liked the grass in the cemetery. Maybe it was because of the cold snap. Or predators could have driven them down.
Predators were the favored theory in town, but in truth nobody really knows what’s going on with the sheep. Their numbers are declining, though, and nobody is more concerned about that than Domek and local wildlife experts.
The Bighorn Center has launched a series of forums in town, in collaboration with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and other agencies, to help seek explanations for the troubling decline in the survival of bighorn lambs.
Game and Fish has donated $300,000 to a study of bighorn sheep lamb mortality. “We are at a critical point,” said biologist Greg Anderson at the last session on February 11, as quoted in the Dubois Frontier. The sheep “are not in a good condition,” he added.
The department is focusing on three major suspects in the early death of lambs: habitat and nutrition, disease, and predators.
The excursion to town might be one of the “behavioral changes” in the lower winter range than Anderson said predators are causing. But whether that is linked to actual mortality is unknown, at least for now.
So if the visit from the bighorns was a charming surprise, it was also rather sobering.
© Lois Wingerson, 2019
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