The Beauty of Our Favorite Beast

Why open your pockets to pay homage to a mere sheep?

bash2016Last Saturday, I finally had the chance to show off some of what I brought here from New York: the slinky black trousers, my hand-painted jacket, and my fancy necklace. We had two of the 200 tickets to the sold-out Bighorn Bash, which is probably the hottest gala in town.

The minute I got through the door at the Headwaters Center, I realized what I’d left behind: My good sense. Nobody cares about my big-town duds. In Dubois, it doesn’t matter what you wear. What matters is who you are.

buckleAgain this year, I asked myself what it is that creates the wonderful clamor at the annual Bighorn Bash (which supports our own home-grown educational institution, the National Bighorn Interpretive Sheep Center). The meal ticket alone is $35, a fairly hefty sum for many people here. But the goodwill in the big room at the Headwaters is palpable during that event.

The Official Speakers orate over the hubbub, and people gasp and roar during the live auction, as bidding escalates beyond the point of reason for items bearing the image of our favorite elusive animal. Leigh paid thousands for a smallish wall hanging (and then donated it back). The anonymous $1900 bid for the little box with a ram’s head carved on ramshorn was officially deemed to be unsatisfactorily low. A few pounds of fresh-caught seafood went for hundreds.

lucasbox“I wish I was that rich,” said someone at my table. I knew she didn’t mean she really wishes to be wealthy. She meant she wished that she too could afford to bid outrageously high for the benefit of the Sheep Center.

Not only did I not get why this particular event is so popular; the bighorn sheep was never very high on my list of things to love about Dubois. We joined the Sheep Center out of general goodwill, but I have always focused instead on the incredible scenery here, the history, the geology and archaeology. On individual residents and the community spirit in general.

Why do they get so excited about a mere sheep?

The next morning, waking to yet another stunning Indian summer day, we decided to go out beyond the reach of hikes in our ATV. “I’m going to take you somewhere you’ve never seen,” said my husband, who spends more time on the four-wheeler than I do.

gorgeHe drove me out to the East Fork, that wonderful region far on the other side of town where I first fell in love with this territory, while staying at a dude ranch. We climbed up beyond the undulating red rock hills to a nearly barren, windswept ridge where we were higher than the eagles fly.

When the rocky track petered out, he turned off the engine and led me out to a precipice. As John Denver once eloquently sang, I saw everything as far as I could see. The river was way down there, dizzyingly far below my feet.

“It doesn’t get any better than this,” I said, but he didn’t hear. He had already walked back to the ATV and turned it around.

Almost as soon as we started off, he turned the engine off again. Instantly, I understood what had escaped me before.

bighorn

There, directly ahead, was a lone ram. He stood silent and erect, wearing his elegant pair of heavy horns like a crown.

He turned and looked at us for a moment, then strode off across the track and down the slope on the other side. He had the bearing of a landowner graciously ignoring two trespassers.

He and his family roam easily the places where I can venture only with great difficulty, or not at all. This landscape we love with such passion is his kingdom. That’s why.

© Lois Wingerson, 2016

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.

Close Encounters of the Herd Kind

How do you know it’s spring in Dubois WY? You see neighbors that don’t usually turn up nearby.

Sheep060816_4How do you know it’s spring in Dubois?

The animal neighbors turn up nearby, joining the livestock to sample the new grass.

Later on, most of them will vanish up-mountain. But for now, we get to enjoy their company.

Many of the creatures we are delighted to see are quite young. It’s that time of year too.

Last week, returning from Fort Washakie, I passed a herd of 17 bighorn sheep right beside the highway, just west of the red rocks.

This was a red-letter day for me. In nearly a decade here, I’ve only seen these wild sheep once or twice, and then only one or two at a time.

ISheep060816_3t was also troubling, because they were within feet of the highway. I pulled off to the shoulder and tried to motion passing cars to slow down.

When it was safe, I pulled a U-turn, got out of the car, and herded the sheep over the fence by approaching them. They say it’s not possible to herd bighorn sheep. Maybe I’m just a really scary person.

Of course I knew that when I continued on toward Dubois, they would leap back over the fence and keep grazing.

Calves2Last Thursday, heading toward town for a meeting, I was startled to see several calves wandering toward the highway near town, spilling out from a road that led into one of the fields. Slowing, I could see that the gate had been left ajar.

Again I pulled a U-turn, and again I got out and shooed the creatures back to the safe side of the fence. This time, after closing the gate, I could be certain I’d left them safe.

Two evenings ago, my husband called me to the window to watch two eagles and another large bird, perhaps a hawk, hovering over the aspens. Then he gasped as one of the eagles took a plunge toward the treetops.

BeaverTreesThe other, considerably smaller, bird was attacking the eagles repeatedly in mid-flight. Eventually the eagles  descended into the land beneath the grove. We wonder whether they found the hawk’s nest, or just gave up.

Yesterday on a hike in Long Creek Valley, we never saw any beavers. But we certainly saw what they had been up to.

As we stood contemplating the perfection of this lumber work, wondering what led the animals to stop midway, one of us turned around and spied the work in progress. What an engineering feat!

Sad to think, as someone remarked, that the Game & Fish people are sure to disassemble this. How lucky we were to find it!

BeaverDam1

A few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of elk loitering uphill from our house, easily visible, en route up the Dunoir Valley back toward Yellowstone, thick as aphids on a leaf.

I don’t have a picture of that. I just couldn’t tear my eyes away.

 

 

Volunteers Help Free Sheep Caught by Muggers

Guest columnist Karen Sullivan recounts a unique adventure, her reward for being in the Dubois area during the “shoulder season.”

BighornSheepStudyRecently, I had the unforgettable opportunity to help study some of the bighorn sheep and mule deer in the Dubois area, up close. It was an incredible experience!

Along with several other volunteers, I assisted in a joint project of the National Bighorn Sheep Center, the University of Wyoming, and the state Game & Fish Department to monitor the body condition and migration patterns of these wonderful animals. Our job as volunteers was to help collect the sheep delivered by helicopter, and to protect both the biologists and the animals by holding them still while they were being examined.

Last year, several ewes were collared in order to track their movements and recapture them annually for physical examinations. A helicopter crew from New Zealand was hired to capture the sheep and bring them to the exam area near Dubois.

BighornSheepStudy1The crew used a helicopter and net gun to catch the sheep. Once the sheep were caught in the net, two muggers (yes, that is what they are called!) jumped from the helicopter to blindfold and hobble the sheep. They also wrapped them in a sturdy tarp for transport to the exam area.

The helicopter pilot’s skills were impressive, to say the least! He very gently laid the sheep on the ground, where volunteers picked them up and carried them to the biologists who would examine them. Each animal had an extensive examination, which included measuring their body fat, checking for pregnancy using an ultrasound, and collecting blood, ear, nose, and throat swab samples to test them for disease.

BighornSheepStudy2Most of the sheep were surprisingly calm throughout the process, especially considering that no tranquilizer was used.

The collars were then adjusted or replaced as needed. After this, the sheep were moved to an open area, where their blindfolds and hobbles were removed and they were set free. Volunteers were also able to help with freeing the ewes.

Once released, the ewes did not waste any time running to rejoin their herd. They are amazingly fast runners.

BighornSheepStudy3The collars on the ewes allow the biologists to track them and their lambs throughout the year and to monitor their health as well as their migration patterns.

As a new part of this ongoing statewide project, several mule deer in the Upper Wind River Valley have also been caught, examined, and collared with the same objective.

I would not have imagined that I would ever be able to get so close to bighorn sheep or be able to actually help with a project like this. I hope that the long-term results from this research will help ensure the health of these magnificent animals, and increase their population.

© 2016 Karen Sullivan. Image credits: Karen Sullivan (top), Nick Dobric (remainder)

Want to see more of Living Dubois? Sign up at upper right to receive new posts by email.