Several weeks ago I wrote about my most memorable wildlife encounters. Inexplicably, I failed to mention what was probably the most unusual of them all: the sighting of two bighorn sheep as I was hiking down the south side of Pinchot Pass. The encounter was doubly unlikely. First, hikers don’t often get this close to one (or, in this case, two), and second, even if you are close to them, they blend in so well to the terrain that they are extremely easy to miss.
This may be the closest I’ve ever been to an endangered species. They came close to disappearing entirely.
There were many factors that contributed to the shrinking size of the herd. The most cited include hunting (which, obviously, is no longer permitted), competition from domestic sheep, and disease. They are also a favorite dinner for cougars. In the mid-1990s there were only about 100 animals left; nevertheless, it took nearly five years for the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep to be added the endangered species list. Three separate geographic recovery units were created in the north, central, and southern parts of the Sierra Nevada. The John Muir Trail passes through all three of them.
Since then there has been a carefully managed program to revitalize the herd. In 2013 it was estimated to exceed 500 animals. That may not sound like many, but it’s likely that the herd was never all that large. The California Department of Fish & Wildlife estimate that prior to contact with the west, it was “more than 1,000” strong.
If you see these amazing animals in the wild you are in for a treat. They somehow manage to move across impossibly rugged ground with as little apparent effort as a lazy bear strolling through Cook’s Meadow. I’ve spoken to hikers far more experienced than I who have never seen one. Seeing these two made for a pretty great morning.
Good hiking, Ray