Sometimes even the biggest animals can hide in plain sight. It’s amazing how a massive elk can suddenly appear out of the woods one minute and disappear behind a narrow tree trunk the next. An entire herd might be standing at the forest edge but blend perfectly into the landscape. Tall grasses could hide several deer, awaiting the keen observer. But one of the most elusive large species in the White Mountains is the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.
In the first place, there are fewer of them. Secondly, they normally inhabit high, rugged terrain that is often inaccessible to us mere mortals. Lastly, they seem to blend seamlessly into their chosen habitat.
For several years, I made many trips to bighorn sheep territory and glassed the rugged mountains in hopes of glimpsing these majestic animals, to no avail. You can imagine my excitement when I finally came upon them, especially since I had gone to the high country for a different purpose.
One spring day, I was out with a friend who was fairly new to the mountain but also loved to explore nature. Her very favorite creature happened to be frogs. Although I always stay open for anything that appears in nature, our primary goal that day was to return to a shallow pond near the East Fork of the Black River in search of Arizona tree frogs. They had been plentiful the previous spring. This year, the pond was dry. It was obvious our official state amphibian would have to wait for rain or propagate somewhere else. As we bemoaned our loss, we drove back to the road that would take us through bighorn sheep territory.
While nature never stays the same--and at times can bring disappointments like dry ponds--part of the fun of exploration is anticipating what might appear next. And sure enough, just around a few curves from the dry frog pond, we came upon the crackerjack prize of the day: Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. A herd of them. Rams! Older ones sported signature horns which curved clear down and around their faces. Immature rams appeared more like ewes with smaller, less lethal-looking horns.
There’s a good chance we would have driven right by them had it not been for a truck pulled over to the side of the road. With our minds still on frogs, we had been caught up in the allure of the sparkling waters of East Fork. The truck’s occupants, however, were looking in the other direction up the steep hillside above us. We followed their gaze. Laying down and appearing like boulders were 17 rams, perfectly camouflaged!
When the other truck moved on, I silently thanked the driver for the sighting. We were thrilled to be left alone to observe and film these impressive creatures of the wild. As we watched, the only motion on the mountainside was the chewing of cud. Spellbound, we cherished silent moments of deep connection with them. My friend called them boulders with chins!
This gentle gathering of rams containing all ages bunched close together in obvious companionship. Peace reigns among the big boys most of the year except during breeding season when the largest rams challenge each other with testosterone-driven head-butting action to win supremacy and sire the next generation. After the rut from mid-November through mid-December, bighorn sheep separate into two groups. Mature males inhabit one area of their range while larger herds of ewes and lambs, including immature rams, typically occupy a separate and more expansive grazing area.
I watched and filmed for some time before one older ram slowly got up and meandered toward a small spring-fed stream that flowed into the East Fork. Most of the herd followed him while a few headed in the opposite direction to graze. As the majority gathered along the little stream, a pecking order was obvious. Smaller rams moved aside to let larger rams drink first. As they waited their turn, the younger ones playfully butted each other in anticipation of the day they might seriously compete. After they quenched their thirst, an older ram slowly led them back up toward high, rocky bluffs. We stayed quiet for awhile each imprinting our memories with this unforgettable encounter.
It’s hard to go anywhere on the high country without seeing evidence of the 2011 Wallow Fire. In the midst of that horrific crisis, most of our wildlife ran ahead of the flames and found safe haven in other areas of the mountain. But when fire came roaring through the canyons and pushed up to the mountain tops by continuous high winds, bighorn sheep didn’t stand a chance. While instinct is usually an animal’s best friend, it can sometimes backfire. Instinct took the sheep higher and higher just ahead of the flames until there was no place to go. Their only escape route was blocked by intense heat. During the elk hunt later that year, bow hunters found burned remains of 10 large rams. A full-scale search throughout historic bighorn sheep range found only one remaining mature ram. Ewes and lambs were apparently in some safe pocket of the mountain where the fire spared them. Little did we know at the time that the Wallow Fire, which burned over 800 square miles of the White Mountains, had also nearly wiped out our bighorn sheep population.
Arizona Game and Fish Department acted immediately and began an arduous task of re-locating Rocky Mountain rams to the Black River drainage area in time for the breeding season in 2011. Timing was critical if there were to be a next generation of one of the most majestic wild animals in the White Mountains. The task was accomplished and eight mature rams were trans-located from the Morenci mine properties to the Black River drainage area in time for the 2011 breeding season. I can only imagine the effort it took!
As we came out of the trance of the quiet observation after the sheep moved off, we allowed our excitement to break free. With high 5’s and yahoos we drove on through the canyon. Not only had we finally experienced an amazing sighting of bighorn sheep, but I suddenly realized we were witnessing the success of the first post-fire translocation effort.
If you want to see the elusive bighorn sheep, you might luck out, as we did in East Fork. A more accessible place might be between Greer and Springerville right along Highway 260. In 2014, another relocation enterprise brought 12 more Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep to the mountains above the South Fork of the Little Colorado River, where recent bone discoveries showed evidence that sheep had inhabited this area in the past. Now, the new arrivals occasionally wander down into the grasslands along the highway to graze where they are in plain sight.
It’s painful to imagine the charred bodies of 10 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, but we can be so thankful that they could be replaced. I not only learn about wildlife every time I encounter them, but also very often learn from them. We live with ongoing threats of another catastrophic fire on our mountain, thus the possibility of evacuation. I imagine the mournful cries of burning bighorn sheep, and have made a second escape route out of my own property…just in case. I won’t let the deaths of those “sacrificial lambs” be for naught.
Barbara Davis is a published author on books about birds of the Southwest. She grew up on a cattle ranch in southeastern Arizona and now lives in a cabin surrounded by nature and wildlife in the White Mountains. “My deepest gratitude goes to Kathleen Varhol who graciously sponsors this column in loving memory of her parents, Clarence & Elizabeth Ramel, who loved, and appreciated nature.”