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THE WILD SHEEP OF THE SIERRA.
THE wild sheep ranks highest among the animal mountaineers of the Sierra. Possessed of keen sight and scent, immovable nerve, and strong limbs, he dwells secure amid the loftiest summits of the Alps, from one extremity of the range to the other; leaping unscathed from crag to crag, up and down the fronts of giddy precipices, crossing foaming torrents and slopes of frozen snow, exposed to the wildest storms, yet maintaining a brave, warm life, and developing from generation to generation in perfect strength and beauty.
Nearly all the lofty mountain chains of the globe are inhabited by wild sheep, which, by the best naturalists, are classified under five distinct species. These are the argali (Ovis ammon, Linn.), found throughout all the principal ranges of Asia; the burrhal (Ovis burrhel) of the upper Himalayas; the Corsican moufflon (Ovis musimon, Pal.); the African wild sheep (Ovis tragelephus, Cuv.); and the American big horn, or Rocky Mountain sheep (Ovis montana, Cuv.) To this last-named species belongs the wild sheep of the Sierra Nevada. Its range, according to Professor Baird, of the Smithsonian Institution, extends "from the region of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone, to the Rocky Mountains and the high grounds adjacent to them on the eastern slope, and as far south as the Rio Grande. Westward it extends to the coast ranges of Washington Territory, Oregon, and California, and follows the highlands some distance into Mexico."* Throughout the vast region bounded on the east and west by the Wasatch Mountains and the Sierra, there are more than a hundred independent ranges and mountain groups, trending north and south in close succession, range beyond
Pacific Railroad Survey, Vol. viii., page 678. VOL. XXII.-1.
range, with summits rising from eight to twelve thousand feet above the level of the sea, every one of which, according to my own observations, is, or has been, inhabited by this species.
Compared with the argali, which, considering its size and the vast extent of its range, is probably the most important of all the wild sheep, our species is, perhaps, a little larger, and the horns are more regularly curved, and less divergent. The more important characteristics are, however, essentially the same, some of the best naturalists maintaining that the two are only varied forms of one species. In accordance with this view, Cuvier conjectures that the argali may have been distributed over this continent from Asia by crossing Behring Straits on ice.
On account of the extreme variability of the sheep under culture, it is generally supposed that the innumerable domestic breeds have all been derived from the few wild species; but the whole question is involved in obscurity. According to Darwin, sheep have been domesticated from a very ancient period, the remains of a small breed, differing from any now known, having been found in the famous Swiss lake dwellings.
Compared with the best-known domestic breeds, we find that our wild species is more than twice as large; and, instead of an all-wool garment, the wild wears a thick overcoat of hair like that of the deer, and an under-covering of fine wool. The hair, though rather coarse, is comfortably soft and spongy, and lies smooth, as if carefully tended with comb and brush. The predominant color during most of the year is brownish-gray, varying to bluish-gray in the autumn; the belly and a large, conspicuous patch on the buttocks are white; and the tail, which is very short, like that of a deer, is black, with a yellowish border. [Copyright, 1881, by Scribner & Co. All rights reserved.]
The wool is always white, and grows in beautiful spirals down out of sight among the straight, shining hair, like delicate climbing vines among stalks of corn.
The horns of the male are of immense size, measuring in their greater diameter from five to six and a half inches, and from two and a half to three feet in length around the curve. They are yellowish-white in color, and ridged transversely, like those of the domestic ram. Their cross-section near the base is somewhat triangular in outline, and flattened over toward the tip. In rising
Ewe. ft. in.
Ram. ft. in. Height at shoulders.. 3 6 3 O Girth around shoulders.. 3 11 3 334 Length from nose to root of tail.. 5 10 4 3/2 Length of ears... 0 434 0 5 0 42 0 42 Length of tail. 2 9 0 11/2
Length of horns around curve. Distance across from tip to tip of horns. 2 5/2 Circumference of horns at base.. I 4 o 6
from the head, they curve gently backward and outward, then forward and outward, until about three-fourths of a circle is described, and until the flattened, blunt tips are about two feet apart. Those of the female are flattened throughout their entire length, less curved than those of the male, and much smaller, measuring less than a foot along the curve.
A ram and ewe that I obtained near the Modoc lava-beds, to the north-east of Mount Shasta, measured as follows:
The measurements of a male obtained in the Rocky Mountains by Audubon vary but little as compared with the above.
of something only half alive, while the wild is as elegant and graceful as a deer, and every movement tells the strength and grandeur of his character. The tame is timid; the wild is bold. The tame is always more or less ruffled and dirty; while the wild is as smooth and clean as the flowers of his mountain pastures.
The earliest mention that I have been
find of the wild sheep in America is by Father Picolo, a Catholic missionary at Monterey, in the year 1797, who, after describing it, oddly enough, as "a kind of deer with a sheep-like head, and about as large as a calf one or two years old," naturally hurries on to remark: "I have eaten of these beasts; their flesh is very tender and delicious." Mackenzie, in his northern travels, heard the species spoken of by the Indians as "white buffaloes." And Lewis and Clark tell us that, in a time of great scarcity on the head-waters of the Missouri, they saw plenty of wild sheep, but they were "too shy to be shot."
A few of the more energetic of the Pah Ute Indians hunt the wild sheep every season among the more accessible of the California Alps, in the neighborhood of passes, where, from having been pursued, they have at length become extremely wary; but in the rugged wilderness of peaks and cañons, where the foaming tributaries of the San Joaquin and King's rivers take their rise, they fear no hunter save the wolf, and are more guileless and approachable than their tame kindred.
I have been greatly interested in studying their habits during the last ten years, while engaged in the work of exploring those high regions where they delight to roam. In the months of November and December, and probably during a considerable portion of midwinter, they all flock together, male and female, old and young. I once found a complete band of this kind numbering upward of fifty, which, on being alarmed, went bounding away across a jagged lava-bed at admirable speed, led by a majestic old ram, with the lambs safe in the middle of the flock.
In spring and summer, the full-grown rams form separate bands of from three to twenty, and are usually found feeding along the edges of glacier meadows, or resting among the castle-like crags of the high summits; and whether quietly feeding, or scaling the wild cliffs for pleasure, their noble forms, and the power and beauty of their movements, never fail to strike the beholder with lively admiration.
Their resting-place seems to be chosen with reference to sunshine and a wide outlook, and most of all to safety from the attacks of wolves. Their feeding-grounds are among the most beautiful of the wild gardens, bright with daisies, and gentians, and mats of purple bryanthus, lying hidden away on rocky headlands and cañon sides, where sunshine is abundant, or down in shady glacier valleys, along the banks of the streams and lakes, where the plushy sod is greenest. Here they feast all summer, the happy wanderers, perhaps relishing the beauty as well as the taste of the lovely flora on which they feed, however slow tame men may be to guess their capacity beyond grass.
When winter storms set in, loading their highland pastures with snow, then, like the birds, they gather and go to warmer climates, usually descending the eastern flank of the range to the rough, volcanic table-lands and treeless ranges of the Great Basin adjacent to the Sierra. They never make haste, however, and seem to have no dread of storms, many of the strongest only going down leisurely to bare, wind-swept ridges, to feed on bushes and dry bunchgrass, and then returning up into the snow. Once I was snow-bound on Mount Shasta for three days, a little below the timber-line. It was a dark and stormy time, well calculated to test the skill and endurance of mountaineers. The snow-laden gale drove on night and day in hissing, blinding floods, and when at length it began to abate, I found that a small band of wild sheep had weathered the storm in the lee of a clump of dwarf pines a few yards above my storm-nest, where the snow was eight or ten feet deep. I was warm back of a rock, with blankets, bread, and fire. My brave companions lay in the snow, without food, and with only the partial shelter of the short trees, yet made no sign of suffering or faint-heartedness.
In the months of May and June, they bring forth their young, in the most solitary and inaccessible crags, far above the nestingrocks of the eagle. I have frequently come upon the beds of the ewes and lambs at an elevation of from twelve to thirteen thousand feet above sea-level. These beds are simply oval-shaped hollows, pawed out among loose, disintegrating rock-chips and sand, upon some sunny spot commanding a good outlook, and partially sheltered from the winds that sweep those lofty peaks almost without intermission. Such is the cradle of the little mountaineer, aloft in the
very sky; rocked in storms, curtained in clouds, sleeping in thin, icy air; but, wrapped in his hairy coat, and nourished. by a strong, warm mother, defended from the talons of the eagle and teeth of the sly coyote, the bonnie lamb grows apace. He soon learns to nibble the tufted rockgrasses and leaves of the white spiræa; his horns begin to shoot, and before summer is done he is strong and agile, and goes forth with the flock, watched by the same divine love that tends the more helpless human lamb in its warm cradle by the fireside.
Nothing is more commonly remarked by noisy, dusty trail-travelers in the high Sierra than the want of animal life-no birds, no deer, no squirrels. But if such could only go away quietly into the wilderness, sauntering afoot with natural deliberation, they would soon learn that these mountain mansions are not without inhabitants, many of whom, confiding and gentle, would not try to shun their acquaintance.
In the fall of 1873 I was tracing the South Fork of the San Joaquin up its wild cañon to its farthest glacier fountains. It was the season of Alpine Indian summer. The sun beamed lovingly; the squirrels were nutting in the pine-trees, butterflies hovered about the last of the golden-rods, willow and maple thickets were yellow, the meadows were brown, and the whole sunny, mellow landscape glowed like a countenance with the deepest and sweetest repose. On my way over the shining, glacier-polished rocks along the foaming river, I came to an expanded portion of the cañon, about two miles long and half a mile wide, inclosed with picturesque granite walls, like those of Yosemite Valley, the river pouring its crystal floods through garden, meadow, and grove in many a sun-spangled curve.
This hidden Yosemite was full of wild life. Deer, with their supple, well-grown fawns, bounded from thicket to thicket as I advanced. Grouse kept rising from the
brown grass with a great whirring of wings, and, alighting on low branches of pine or poplar, allowed a near approach, as if if pleased to be observed. Farther on, a broad-shouldered wild-cat showed himself, coming out of a grove, and crossing the river on a flood-jamb of logs, halting for a moment to look back. The bird-like tamias frisked about my feet everywhere among the pine-needles and seedy grass-tufts. Cranes waded the shallows of the riverbends, the kingfisher rattled from perch to perch, and the blessed ouzel sang amid the spray of every cascade. Where may lonely wanderer find a more beautiful family of mountain-dwellers, earth-born companions, and fellow-mortals? It was afternoon when I joined them, and the glorious landscape faded in the gloaming before I awoke from their enchantment. Then I sought a camp
ground on ground on the river-bank, made a cupful of tea, and lay down to sleep on a smooth place among the yellow leaves of an aspen grove. Next day I discovered yet grander landscapes and grander life. Following the curves of the river, over huge, swelling rock-bosses, and past innumerable cascades, the scenery in general became gradually more Alpine. The sugar-pine and silver-fir gave place to the hardier cedar and Williamson spruce. The cañon walls became more rugged and bare, and gentians and Arctic daisies became more abundant in the gardens and strips of meadow along the streams. Toward the middle of the afternoon I came to another valley, strikingly wild and original in all its features, and perhaps never before touched by human foot. As regards area of level bottom-land, it is one of the very smallest