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Watching the bighorns as they move to the flats

Living the Wild Life

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“Have you seen the herd of bighorns up by Lone Pine,” a neighbor called to ask me a couple of weeks ago. “The rams are chasing the ewes all over a hay field and there are about six large rams in the bunch. We are watching them right now.”

He was on his way to his cabin at Gilmore and had been watching them for several weeks as the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep had moved out of the mountains when their rut started. With a skiff of snow on the ground stopping me from hunting rocks and with not enough ice on Henrys Lake, my grandson, Brandon, and I decided to check them out. Last Saturday we headed for Skull Canyon near the small town of Lone Pine.

The hour-long early morning drive was well worth it as we watched hawks, pronghorns and even a great-horned owl as we headed northwest from Mud Lake. Young eyes are much better than old eyes as Brandon was the first to see sheep playing “catch me if you can” next to the steep mountain cliffs.

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A pronghorn antelope surveys the flatland in the Lemhi Valley. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

We pulled off the road and watched them for about an hour until all of them got tired of their games and took a rest. They were on private property just south of Skull Canyon, so we decided to drive up the canyon to see if there were any lonely rams in the cliffs. We did not find any but enjoyed the beauty of the cliffs.

Brandon had never been to the charcoal making kilns and to the Gilmore, so while the sheep napped, we made that trip. Hundreds of pronghorn antelope were feeding on the Lemhi Valley floor with the snow-dusted Beaverhead Mountains on our right and the Lemhi Range featuring Diamond Peak on our left – it was a beautiful drive.

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Two Rocky Mountain bighorn rams take long drinks from an irrigation ditch near Skull Canyon. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

By the time we got back to the mouth of Skull Canyon, the bighorns had moved north into the hay field with most of the large rams laying down in the tall sage while the small rams, ewes and lambs in the field. Several other trucks with sheep-watchers were parked watching and waiting for the sheep to move closer.

The herd stalled about 500 yards away, but then Brandon noticed three rams walking and trotting toward the south – they were headed for an irrigation ditch off of Birch Creek. All the fun and games were forgotten as they needed a drink. As they got to the water, we were finally close enough to get some good pictures as they stopped within 100 yards of us.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are one of two species of wild sheep in Idaho. The Rocky Mountain sheep have been reintroduced the Central Idaho by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game while the California bighorns have been planted in the southwest corner of Idaho. The 41 sheep that we observed came from those that were reintroduced during the 1980’s. This herd located in the #30 Population Management Unit in the Beaverhead Mountains, has fluctuated between 20 to 87 animals in the last twenty years.

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Rocky Mountain bighorns play and chase each other in the early morning sun. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com

One of the chief dangers for wild bighorns which cause rapid population fluctuations, are healthy domestic sheep and goats which carry pneumonia which is deadly for the wild animals. Studies show that #30 PMU could maintain about 250 animals under perfect conditions, but because that area is located near the Montana/Idaho line where domestic sheep allotments are allowed the herd remains small. That area is also big game hunting management Unit #30 where two rams can be harvested by hunters that are lucky enough to draw a tag for them.

As we headed for home, we discussed the bighorns, their history and their beauty. We stopped long enough for Brandon to locate six mule deer in the foothills and for me to get some pictures of the pronghorns on the flat. Another great day spent in the wilds of Idaho.

Once again, I am going to caution you to watch closely for migrating elk and deer, especially along Highway 33 where two elk and three deer have been hit this week. Hope all of you had a lovely Thanksgiving.

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Diamond Peak adds to the beauty of the Lemhi Range where bighorns can be found. | Bill Schiess, EastIdahoNews.com
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