Desert Bighorns: Risking My Life to Watch Endangered Sheep
It was the crack of dawn with the sunrise barely visible through the thick clouds. Abruptly awaking to the obnoxious beeps of my 20-year-old alarm clock, I scarfed down a hasty breakfast, re-checked my camera bag, petted my cats, then darted out the door. I drove to a nearby canyon (which shall remain unnamed to protect it’s rare inhabitants) where I had, the previous day, happened upon a small herd of desert bighorn sheep on a steep hillside. Perhaps “happening” upon them is a slight downplay as I had, for weeks, been incessantly hiking rugged terrain, scouring every cliff and rocky hillside with my trusty binoculars. Unfortunately, I was neither physically-prepared, nor carrying the proper equipment to make a rugged climb for a better view. Light was also disappearing fast.
When I arrived at the canyon, the weather was windy and still quite overcast, less than ideal conditions for perching near a ridge and attempting long-distance photos. Nonetheless, I gathered my gear and strapped it to my back, realizing at the last minute that my tripod was at home, lying in the closet. Hiking several miles to the base of the treacherous hillside at which the sheep had previously been sighted, I removed my camera from it’s case, using the telephoto lens as a monocular. Proceeding to scan the hillside and cliffs for several minutes without a sighting, I gazed up the absurdly steep slope at the formidable climb ahead and briefly considered abandoning the mission.
Reluctantly, I began the trek. After some time, nearing the spot at which the desert bighorns had been previously foraging. Although the distance wasn’t outrageous, the treacherous terrain, weight of my pack, and sheer brutality of the situation left me, on several occasions, winded and dizzy, forced to pause and catch my breath. Stopping to evaluate the necessity of scaling an enormous boulder, a sharp movement drew my attention. I assessed the area, soon noticing not one, but 3 bighorn sheep.
Still a distance beyond, they had long ago noticed my blundering intrusion. The 3, soon joined by 5 more (including a yearling), climbed a few feet higher, thus gaining a better vantage point from which to survey me. Quickly reaching a flat rock which offered a relatively clear line of sight (and as much comfort as I might hope for), I removed the weighty pack, depositing my burden on the mossy ground.
I remained still, very careful to not alarm these cautious new friends. The herd soon began to resume their normal activities. Two rams put on a brief show, quite literally butting heads. One ram briefly attempted to assert dominance over a rival, resulting in a very short stand-off. Several does lounged nearby, seemingly disinterested in the testosterone-charged aggression.
Like many other animals, bighorn sheep are creatures of routine, opting to feed at somewhat regular times, resting, showing-off, and mating during the in-between. As late morning approached, the bighorns, writing me off as a non-threat, descended the small distance to their former haunt. In short order, they began to feed. Although noticeable closer to my station, they were still a good distance away, but now with more visual obstacles.
Such large and powerful animals, yet also remarkably nimble, these horny ungulates, on several occasions, effortlessly forded narrow ledges which would have left most humans (myself included) quickly plummeting to their doom. In complete awe, I continued to watch their antics, ecstatic at not only another sighting, but the unprecedented opportunity to snap so many pictures of this endangered species!
The cloudy sky, paired with my shady alcove greatly restricted the available light which I so desperately needed. I spent 4 hours in these frustrating conditions, watching the sheep as the wind cut through my layers of attire. Despite neoprene gloves, my hands eventually started to go numb. Following suit, my toes quickly began to lose sensation. Glancing toward the valley, I suddenly remembered that I still needed to climb down the mountain, and had no choice but to call it a day.
Less strenuous, yet, thanks to my stiff legs and the force of gravity, the far more dangerous descent was my final obstacle. Losing my footing on several occasions, yet always within an arms length of something sturdy to grab, I managed to prevent a tumble. My awkward backpack was a trying hindrance in the way of balance. After what felt like eons, I reached the valley, breathing a long sigh of relief.
My legs felt like rubber, making the return hike a challenge in itself. Those wobbly legs may as well have been balancing on stilts.
It was a spectacular experience, but I’m certainly not built to scale rocks like a bighorn sheep!