By Matt Hart
The biggest bighorn I ever saw was an old ram patrolling the side of State Highway 38 between Red River and Questa, New Mexico. My friend, who was driving, knew the windy canyon road and said we might see sheep near the site of Chevron’s abandoned molybdenum mine. A highway department sign echoed his warning with a black bighorn stencil slapped on bright yellow.
Seeing the ram was surprising and wondrous and sad all at once. We rounded a bend and beheld his bulk, ten feet away on the road’s right shoulder. The sheep’s ocher flanks matched the sandstone wall behind him, his horns big and crusty, curling down into a khaki spiral. My friend tapped the brakes for a second, a lingering glimpse, and then we were off, around the next bend. Moments later we were passing the old mine, where the sandstone gouged two hundred feet down into a giant straight-edged V, an inverted pyramid, all of it bighorn-colored.
In his inimitable field guide of animal tracks, Olaus Murie describes photographing Dall sheep, the bighorn’s northern cousin, on a remote ridge in Alaska. Murie waits with his camera, out of sight from the herd, while his brother watches the climbing sheep from a higher promontory, telling Murie of their movements and splicing the familiar baa-aa-a call into his commentary, hoping to keep the sheep from alarm. The tactic works. The herd gets close enough for good photography, and then the men and sheep part ways.
Mountain sheep “inhabit the backbone of our continent,” Murie writes. From Yellowstone, their range spreads north to the Brooks Range south to Baja California. In the subarctic, Dall sheep grow white coats to match snowy surroundings; down in Arizona and Sonora, desert bighorns eat cacti and can survive weeks without drinking water. In between, across most of North America’s spine, we call them Rocky Mountain bighorns. Rams can exceed three hundred pounds, though most are smaller, their weight range similar to humans’. And while they hardly resemble Europe’s domesticated sheep that crossed the Atlantic, colonial impact spread in the form of pneumonia outbreaks among bighorn herds. Along with hunting and habitat loss, foreign diseases nearly annihilated the Rockies’ wild sheep during the nineteenth century, their population dropping from an estimated several million to several thousand.
They have recovered impressively thanks to habitat protection, hunting limits, and their own ability to adapt and yet they possess, for better or worse, a kind of barnyard curiosity. On an alpine ridge in Colorado, a ewe and her lamb once paralleled my hiking party for a quarter mile. They maintained a buffer of twenty yards, the lamb—shielded carefully by her mother’s tawny bulk—rarely visible. Yet with miles of remote ridgeline before them, they stayed close, drawn by the promise of food scraps or salty urine. Like the Muries, we took photos and then descended, leaving the sheep to test instinct again when the next party passed on the popular trail.
On my last trip to Yellowstone, I saw a dozen bighorns without leaving the car. It was cold in May and the sheep were still shaggy, recently dispersed from the safety of their larger winter herds. Winding down into Lamar Valley, they walked five feet from stopped Subarus, and I thought of my friend and teacher, the author Sharman Apt Russell. “The future is a dirt lot,” she writes in her essay “Ordinary Miracles.” Mass extinction will leave us a “planet of weeds,” Russell predicts, home only to those species that have quickly adapted to humanity’s sprawl. These are the straddlers, the survivors with two feet in the wild and two on blacktop. But Russell does not stop with a gloomy forecast. She reaches instead for delight, to be found in the “wilderness of fierce mice and subtle coyotes.” In the curling horn and the orange eye of a roadside bighorn, I searched for the same stubborn fire. I dream now of the herds beyond the highways, of autumn rut way back up an Absaroka valley. The rams huff in immemorial ritual; muscle, fat, and bone quiver; and then comes the lunge, the impact, and the crash that echoes across mountainsides.
A bend approaches in this winding experiment of America’s West. On its far side lies the dirt lot. For now, let us fight like hell for the ones vanishing at the wayside, for the wolverine, lynx, and bull trout and their slivers of remaining habitat. But let us also seek the lessons of the straddlers, the mice and coyotes and bighorns who skirt the edges of our inroads with stout resilience, ever-adapting and yet untamed. They need no shepherd, but perhaps they can guide us toward a wider understanding of kinship, of our earthen selves, and toward a blurring of that false and final border where we end and wildness begins.
Matt Hart is a staff writer for the Vital Ground Foundation, a Missoula-based land trust focused on grizzly bear connectivity. His writing has appeared in the Whitefish Review and High Country News, and he received a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana.
Excerpted from the book The Artist’s Field Guide to Yellowstone.