Photo Journal, Issue 3, August 13, 2009

I Have Been Feeling Sheepish


While backpacking in Kings Canyon National Park in 2001, I had sighted a small herd of endangered bighorn sheep. With a small 35mm film camera, I photographed the herd and sent a photo scan to some disbelieving NPS ranger that I met on the trail.

Just last week, I was on the exact same trail in the exact same spot, and this time I sighted the bachelor herd of bighorns. The dominant ram’s horn curl was the biggest, his body mass was almost the biggest, and his pelage (fur/wool/coat) was the darkest.

Natural History

Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) are large mammals. The largest rams may top 200 pounds, and the lightest ewes may be only 100 pounds. Although both sexes sport horns, the ram’s horns grow more massive with each year, and a fully mature male animal might bear as much as 30 pounds of curled horns. The horns on the female are much smaller and gracefully curved. Normally, the bachelor herd and the female herd live separately. During the autumn, the rutting season causes changes and the two herds come together for breeding purposes. First, the rams have to challenge each other to determine which one will have primary breeding rights. That challenge is head-butting, and the rams strike each other frontally. In general, the biggest ram with the biggest and most massive horns will stagger the lesser ram, and the challenge has been won. After breeding, the gestation
period continues from the autumn until the spring when lambs are born. Newborns stay with their mothers in the female herd for at least one year or possibly longer. However, yearling males are eventually driven away from the female herd before the adult female starts the next breeding season.

Bighorn sheep had inhabited the Sierra Nevada Range for thousands of years, petroglyphs created by Native Americans show this, and it is thought that there may have been as many as two million bighorns living around the western U.S. However, human activity changed things starting around 1850. Demand for meat on the table for miners sent hunters in search of bighorns or practically any other game animal that walked. By
1900, nearly all of the bighorns were gone. Just within the last thirty years or so, bighorn sheep have been relocated from other parts of California to the south where they still thrive, and some of these new herds in the Central Sierra Nevada are now thriving.

The Rae Lakes Loop Trip

Earlier this summer I had some success photographing bighorn sheep in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Then I developed the idea of returning to Kings Canyon National Park for more. Just outside the park to the east, there is a zoological preserve set up to
protect bighorn sheep. This area near Mount Baxter is very steep and rocky, and the bighorns seem to thrive there as long as their natural predators are minimized. I suppose that the California grizzly bear was killed off most of a century ago, so mountain lions are the primary predator remaining. The John Muir Trail is the major north-south passage near the Sierra Nevada Crest, and this is traveled by hundreds of hikers per day. By 2001, some of the bighorns had migrated from the preserve east of the trail and into a less-rocky area west of the trail. They had crossed the Rae Lakes Basin, so it seemed appropriate for me to backpack along the loop trail through there to check on the bighorns again, purely for photographic purposes. Besides, I wanted to get there while the wildflower season was still going strong.

I recruited another backpacker to go along, assembled the lightest weight of backpacking gear and food to get the trip done, and then assembled some camera gear. Basically, I would carry my Canon DSLR camera body with a long lens. It seemed like 200mm was not enough, so I carried my 100-400mm lens. Unfortunately, with the camera body, the long lens, a short lens, padded case and extra battery, the total camera weight added up to nearly ten pounds. That is two or three times as much camera weight as what any other sane backpacker carried in that area, but I was somewhat motivated. In a divergence from my normal pattern, I carried no real tripod. I intended to rely on the Image Stabilizer in the lens, good light, and good technique to avoid blurry images. I carried no external flash gun, either. This was all a bit radical for me, but I absolutely had to avoid carrying extra weight.

The entire loop trail is around 45 miles and includes the crossing of Glen Pass (nearly 12,000 feet elevation). Some backpacking groups attempt to complete that circuit in 5-6 days. We, however, had some schedule conflicts, so we had to finish within 4 days. When
all of the smoke cleared, we finished in 3½ days.

In the bighorn photo (on the photo gallery), there are five bighorn rams easily visible, and a sixth one partly visible in back. The dominant ram is the second from the left. The others stayed clustered around him when he foraged and followed when he moved away.


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