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Sheep Places

The transition from "wild" to "managed" is instant and forever

by Ellen Meloy

Published in the September/October 2005 issue of Orion magazine



SUNRISE IN THE REDROCK DESERT has the calm of water: a spill of liquid silence, sunlight the color of embers, every surface bathed in it. How can there be such quiet among members of a garrulous species grouped together in space and task—no voices yet? I believe that it’s because all of us are desert people. We are known gazers into the horizon at early hours. That pause between the solitude of the senses and social discourse feels acute today, a day that will deliver into our hands, briefly, the wildest flesh of the canyon.

Wildlife biologists Dave and Nike Stevens brief us on the procedure. The helicopter will bring the sheep to the landing area. Two teams will move them to the work tent. Three or four people, maybe more for a big ram, will carry each mesh sling by its handles. Another person should be on the horns, holding the head upright so the animal doesn’t regurgitate the contents of its rumen and choke.

Scott Bender gives instructions as well. The sleeves of his work shirt are rolled back and an object with tubing sticks out of his back pocket. You could pick him out of a crowd as a veterinarian. He has assembled an array of medical kits on the tailgate of his pickup. Earlier, he recruited my friend Bill Downey and me as his medics.

Mark, my husband, works on a carry team. Mara Weisenberger from the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico has brought two colleagues, Guy and Coby, and four aluminum crates that she designed specifically for transporting bighorn sheep. Five other assistants have come from the Navajo Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“Two sheep will come in each load,” Scott says. “We’ll work them at the same time. I want no more than six minutes per sheep. Our handling should be over and done within six minutes.”

Scott hardly finishes speaking when a pinpoint of sound emerges from the direction of the river. Then it comes quickly, the five-rotor, T-tailed yellow bubble and its throaty roar. A cable dangles from the helicopter’s belly. At the end of the cable hang double-decker slings, one above the other: upstairs, in silhouette, the curl of a ram’s horns; downstairs, two ewes. Three sheep.

AFTER MORE THAN A YEAR of preparation, desert bighorns are being put into the savings bank. From a band of eighty sheep, twenty-four will be selected, captured, and moved to a release site far downriver.

Over the course of four seasons, I have been the herd’s amiable, nosy neighbor in their home canyon on the Colorado Plateau. I peered at them through binoculars, spotting scope, and with naked eye. I watched them stare into space, fall asleep on their feet, curl up in a tight sheep-ball and nap with their chins on the ground. I watched them yawn, chew, stretch. Then a pale turn of light, a shift of tectonic plate, some glimmer of a sheep idea set them in motion and they glided down a precipice of jumbled boulders as if it were a wave of silk.

I made up a name of my own and gave it to the herd: the Blue Door Band. A remote fold of their canyon held a pile of stones that marked the remains of a handbuilt shelter. When I had studied it twenty years before, it had a domed roof, a flat stone hearth, and a door frame that faced the sunrise. The milled boards of the door frame were painted blue, the deep blue of the sky where it meets the canyon’s redrock rims.

On my watching days I often found sheep all over the place, Velcroed to the steep, rocky cliffs. Depending on the season I would see loners, trios, or groups that ranged from five to twenty individuals. Other times I saw no sheep at all. I glassed the walls for hours. Wild sheep can move out of sight the moment you turn your head to notice that the zipper on your jeans is open. Then you look up, look where they were or might be, and behold only rock and sky. When they disappeared for an entire day, or if I was at a post for several days and could not find them, I was alarmed. Sloppy meditation moved to true prayer, to words said against fear.

In the tensely vertical terrain of Utah’s canyonlands, this band of desert bighorn sheep, creatures of considerable evolutionary investment, once vanished into thin air. Their kind had likely been in the southwestern deserts since the late Pleistocene. Over the millennia, in a land of heat, drought, and food plants that resemble pot scrubbers, they had become a different race than their ancestors. Their pelage had paled in color and their bones had lightened. They had learned how to reduce body water loss. They had struck ironclad allegiances to particular watering holes. They were, in short, the locals.

A few decades into the twentieth century, we had the locals surrounded. Like every desert bighorn herd on the continent, the Blue Door Band lived on an isolated remnant of its former terrain. Intolerant of human activity, place-faithful to a fault, and with no other bighorns to naturally replenish them, they were vulnerable to catastrophe. An aggressive predator, for instance, could wreak havoc if the bighorns were in weak condition or if their numbers were few. Contact with domestic sheep could expose them to debilitating disease. Competition for food could push them off their safe places to no place. By the early 1960s the word extinct was bandied about.

Twenty years passed without a confirmed sighting. Then in 1983, boaters floating past a sandy alluvial fan, the site of a rough-hewn stone shelter with a door frame painted sky blue, spotted a ewe and her lamb. That sighting led to more glimpses of bighorns along the river. Despite the odds, the herd began to rebuild itself. Last fall, the band numbered about eighty sheep.

If perils befall the Blue Door Band now, bighorns native to this canyon will survive in a second homeland. The new range is deeper into the backcountry, wilder, and farther from domestic livestock and development. The sheep will have abundant forage. Springs, potholes, and a big river can quench their thirst. The canyon walls provide nearly ideal escape terrain as well as niches and boulder caves for lambing. The new sheep place, in fact, looks like home. It is the habitat of ancestors, a slice of river canyon that has been empty of their kind for thirty or forty years.
You would wish, in a purist’s world, that the animals could move to new sheep places by themselves, find their way to wild quarters of their own choosing. Yet their evolutionary commitment as sedentary specialists—homebodies—makes them reluctant pioneers. And for surrounded, relict bands such as this one, the risk of self-dispersing to the “wrong” place is deemed too great. To colonize safe, unoccupied habitat, twenty-first-century desert sheep need this ark setup and our team of Noahs.

BECAUSE THE DAY PROMISES to be hot and sunny, we have begun early, so as not to add heat stress to the fright of capture. A portable canopy, a sort of minimalist gazebo on tent poles, shades the work tarp where the medical and tagging work will be done. Crates sit in the backs of pickups, one per truck, ready for sheep storage.

From our work camp, it is impossible to see the chase and capture, the chopper’s plucking of an animal from a chasm of vertical stone. About this I am insanely curious, yet relieved to miss the split-second crossing from “wild” to “managed” as the net falls over a running animal and it becomes our hostage.

Now the helicopter hovers over the landing knoll, spraying us with whirling dust and plant debris. Gary, the pilot, sets his parcels down as if they held the last eggs on Earth. When he lifts off, the carry teams run into the dust cloud and pick up the sheep.

The inexperienced among us glue our antennae to the experienced, learning from them with barely a word passed between us. No one has told us to whisper and glide our motions, yet we do so as if by instinct. The hobbled trio lies on the tarp in (one hopes) comfortable positions of sternal recumbence, heads held up, no necks twisted or legs crushed. Scott moves from animal to animal watching for injury, labored breathing, overheating, drooling, and other signs of stress. Bill administers vaccines. Mara and Coby help Dave a;x ear tags and radio collars to the ewes’ necks. Nike assigns each collared animal a number and radio frequency.

I hand medical kits to Scott. He passes me a hypodermic needle full of blood. With the needle, I pierce the seal on a glass tube and press blood into it, dividing the rich red fluid among four vials. The genetic signature in this blood draw could reveal the lineage of the Blue Door Band, unravel secrets of their missing years. Empty, the vial was as cool as an October morning. Blood-filled, it passes the animal’s body heat through the glass to my hand.

Mark and Dondi, a young Navajo, have knelt down on the tarp with the big ram. With a hand on each horn like a calf roper, Mark holds the ram’s head. A blindfold hides his eyes. Suddenly, the muscular neck pulses. That head could deal a blow strong enough to break Mark’s thigh. With Dondi’s help, the ram settles down again.

Epochs pass. We poke and prod the sheep, vampire their veins. The needle’s draw has leaked sticky red blood all over my fingers. Bristles of sheep hair cover the front of my shirt. My hands shake. Bill’s hands are trembling. We look at each other: the world’s most inept and pathetic wildlife handlers. Then we look at Scott. His hands are shaking, too.

The two ewes have been moved into crates. Five people carry the ram to a truck and lift him onto the tailgate, lined up with the crate door. The opening is less than half a sheep high. You do not want the animal to stand and escape as it is moved inside. Already there is a ewe in there. The handlers must remove the restraints as the sheep goes in, a difficult and dangerous maneuver. They compose themselves, look at one another to communicate readiness. Then Mark detaches the blindfold with one hand as the ram slips through the door. The hobble is off in a blink. Ram in, door shut, no ewe flying out.

Scott turns to the crew. We stand before him like limp sock puppets. Silently, Bill mouths to me, That took an hour.

“That took five minutes a sheep. Great job,” Scott says. The ram crashes against the crate with one colossal butt.

BETWEEN SHEEP DELIVERIES, we move the canopy as the sun’s angle changes, keeping the pool of shade as large as possible. October’s sun can be fierce at day’s peak. Our dance of tagging and treatment becomes nearly flawless, even when Gary brings in four sheep at a time. Mostly he carries doubles. Hands no longer shake. We stay at or under six minutes.

During handling, the rams seem more docile than the ewes. Some feisty young ewes try to levitate to freedom during the four seconds between hobble removal and the shutting of the crate door. The haunches that could launch them out of this ordeal are the same muscular haunches that propel them up sheer cliffs. I see rumps of steel.

Gary brings in three more ewes. I kneel down with one of them as Mark holds her horns. In their canyon, high on their rock, even under a camera lens, bighorns loom as large as elk, an illusion they seem to have perfected. Up close, they are smaller than you expect. This ewe weighs just over a hundred pounds. Running beside a tall person like me, she—her shoulders—would reach my bottom rib.

On the radio, Nike and Gary determine that we have enough sheep for the day. It is time to caravan to the canyon rim and the release site.

A handsome, slender man in his early twenties, Fernando has the polite reticence of a traditional Navajo. He barely spoke as he worked on his carry team. One of his jobs is to check on the sheep in the crates. The crate windows are open because the sheep have settled down and Mara wants them to have ventilation during the truck ride. Most of the sheep are lying down, choosing a stillness that likely combines self-preservation with the reality of confinement. The largest ram, the one that needed five handlers, stands with his head against the narrow window slot, where he looks out onto the arena of his captors.

Fernando approaches the crate at an angle. From about six feet away, he watches, arms folded across his chest, body pond-still. Suppressing the congenital Anglo tendency to fidget, I stand motionless behind Fernando so that I, too, can look at the ram.

The eyes are the color of polished oak. Across them run black irises in that odd horizontal ellipse so distinctive of highly sociable ungulates. Something about that not-round iris implies mischief and teasing. Something about that iris makes goats and sheep look as if they would like to nibble your earlobes with their velvety lips.

The orbs are globe-round, an inch and a half across, and slightly protruding. The ram can see behind himself. He can see—instantaneously, up or down a vertical face—where he steps. He moves his head slightly and now he can see Fernando and me. Our eyes lock. In my mind I reassure this trapped animal that this silent conversation is not about death.

OUR CARAVAN MAKES ITS WAY down the highway, passing drivers who do not know that they are traveling alongside twelve rare desert bighorns with needle marks in their butts. From the highway we take a dirt road. Scattered houses and corrals give way to uninhabited desert. Mark maneuvers the truck carefully over ruts and bumps, trying not to shake up the crate on the pickup bed. I look back at the load often and give myself a stiff neck. I remember the last time I hauled sheep, years ago: domestic Rambouillet wethers hogtied in the back of an open pickup, bouncing over the rugged Montana prairie on a friend’s ranch as I drove them to a stock truck and their doom. It was but a blip in the ancient bargain of domestication, of animals husbanded and eaten.

These wild sheep are in human hands only briefly, once in their lifetime, and there are no plans to eat them. The protection of rare animals marks a new kind of bargain that runs contrary to the historical imperative to press everything alive, dead, inert, or otherwise into human service. This ark business is still a rough jewel in the modern psyche. It signifies an act of conscience, a fragile ascendance toward the notion that wild creatures have value independent of human measure. Some of the people we pass on the highway would hardly know the difference between
a gazelle and a leggy duck, yet this translocation, these desert creatures, would excite and move them beyond words.

Leaving the dirt road, we follow a barely discernible two-track path until it comes to a dead end on the top of the mesa. Gary will lift the crates off the parked trucks and fly them down to the river on the cable. Scott has checked each animal. They remain unharmed, but he feels their captivity—by now about five hours long—must come to an end. He wants them out on the rocks with food, water, space, and one another.

Gary buzzes in and hovers. The handlers attach the cable and the chopper lifts a crate from the back of the truck and flies off. We watch the crate spin a few times. Gary tries to correct it by varying his speed; then aircraft and load disappear over the lip of the canyon. Too much spin, Mara worries. Already in her head she is designing a way to stabilize the crates next time.

One by one, Gary flies the crates to the release site, where he lines them up in a neat row on a sandy patch of open ground. A hundred yards away, the river flows over its ancient bed, a sunlit ribbon of jade water unbroken but for lacy ripples over submerged rocks. I see the place in my mind because I have passed it many times in a boat. I have explored its face of cliffs, where hanging springs drape emerald foliage over terra-cotta rock and brass-colored frogs hide behind maidenhair ferns, their bodies moist and cool. Nike and her crew stand behind the crates and open the doors. Twelve desert bighorns leap into the warm October air and race upriver, the first natives to return to a place that suddenly does not feel so empty.

PAUL SHEPARD WROTE, “Wild animals are not our friends. They are uncompromisingly not us nor mindful of us, just as they differ among themselves. They are the last undevoured riches of the planet, what novelist Romain Gary called ‘the roots of heaven.’”

How can a young bighorn ram, whose blood has spilled on my hands, not be “mindful” of us? We rob him of his mobility, his best weapon against predation. We incite terror. There is no way to explain that this capture is temporary and that sheep paradise—succulent plants, exquisitely edible stone, estrous ewes, the river—will soon surround him.

Sometimes I picture this moment in history, a moment with which my own lifetime chances to coincide, as a gate that we have been closing for some time. On the other side, deep landscape falls farther and farther away, always at the point of loss. At the spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature, the gate is very nearly pulled shut to the latching point. The end of the wild world, the emptiness, will come—has arrived. The absence may not be one of actual bodies, a physical loss of this bird or that mammal, a river of native fish or a band of homeland ungulates. Rather it is a loss of autonomous beings, the self-willed fauna that gave us metaphor, that shaped human minds capable of identity with all existence.

THE NEXT DAY WE HAVE relaxed teams and feistier sheep. A young ewe with a pelage the color of ash spooks in her crate and tries to bash it to bits. When I lean against the truck, I feel the vibration of her hooves through the metal.

Out in the air above the canyon, Gary spots fewer animals that match Nike’s requirements. On the radio, she tells him that we have enough rams and asks him to find young females. She also does not want animals that already have collars. The sheep have become more wary. Some hide behind rocks when they hear the chopper, for which you can hardly blame them. If I were a bighorn, I’d dress up like an antelope and hitchhike to the Mexican border.

The chopper crew chases a band of ewes and a ram. When two ewes are netted and airlifted away, the ram tries to follow as if his entire sex life is fluttering heavenward.

When we finish today, sixteen ewes and eight rams will be safely deposited in the bank, in habitat that greatly favors their survival. No one knows how or when the old population disappeared, but with them they took their maps of the canyon—
the lambing grounds, the dangerous places, the paths of descent and ascent. The extirpation interrupted the intricate social mechanisms that pass information on home ranges from generation to generation.

A translocated ewe, or a few of them, will reestablish such maps, describe the new homeland with hooves and instinct, keen eyesight and memory. Others will follow. They are, after all, a follower species. To watch these twenty-four sheep stake out their place-fidelity for the first time would be to witness everything that makes this animal what it is, its evolution and its hunger, its seamless, nearly molecular bond to landscape.

Gary brings in a single ewe, the twenty-fourth capture and the last of the upstream band to be transplanted. She is a beautiful ewe, robust and unscarred, with the slender-bodied musculature of the Blue Door Band phenotype. She shakes uncontrollably from head to tail, the first and only animal to do so. Her mute trembling bears a message of fear so profound it borders on grief, and I am not certain that I can move beyond it. Pam, a Navajo wildlife biologist, holds the ewe’s head up by the horns while her nose rests in the palm of my hand.

WHEN THE RUT ENDED that winter, radio signals from one of the bigger, older rams indicated that he had crossed the river, climbed out of the canyon, and wandered far to the north. He took another ram with him. Although he frequented an escarpment well away from domestic sheep, Dave and Nike kept an eye on him. In the spring the radio on one of the ewes sent a mortality signal. Her carcass lay on an inaccessible—to human hikers—precipice and could not be reached for a necropsy.

The ewe’s death and the walkabout rams left twenty-one transplants coming out of winter in their new habitat.

On a midsummer trip on the river, Mark and I floated past a group of sheep on the banks: two lambless ewes, two ewes with their young of the year, and a long-legged young ram, handsome and virile. As we floated, they walked along the river in the same direction, stopping occasionally to feed on hackberry leaves. Eventually, we lost sight of them and camped eight miles downstream. In the morning, we awoke to find all seven sheep directly across from us, a hundred feet up on a narrow ledge, dozing in their beds. Somewhere along the way they had picked up an extra lamb. This young female seemed unattached to any adults. When we told Nike about the lamb later, she wondered if it might be the orphan of the dead ewe.

From their perch, the sheep watched as we sipped coffee on the beach and did our camp chores. I could see the horizontal black irises in their amber eyes—they were that close. Their choice of resting place seemed almost deliberate. “They followed us,” I told Mark. “They wanted to be with us.” That chopper crap, they said, all is forgiven!

A band of lemon-yellow sun illuminated the sheep on their morning ledge. Ears twitched. Necks were scratched. The sheep acted as if they had lived on these walls forever, with no memory of the Blue Door range. One of the recumbent lambs rested his head on his mother’s rear flank. She was approaching her prime, a well-conformed four-year-old with a pale, smooth nose that had rested in the palm of my hand. For this gift, for the wildness that she had surrendered to my intrusion, I found no reciprocation.

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Ellen Meloy (1946-2004) was an American writer of the Southwestern desert whose books include The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Stone, Sea, and Sky.

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