by Julia, DFW Recovery Program Scientific Aide
In the winter of 2009-2010, backcountry skiiers saw a group of Sierra bighorn on Esha Peak, an area of the Convict Creek herd unit in which we were previously unaware of any sheep activity. The sighting was later confirmed by Todd, another Scientific Aide, on several occasions in 2010 and 2011. These sheep may have made their way to the McGee Creek drainage from the nearby Wheeler Ridge herd, but no one knows what induced them to move or exactly where they travel within their new habitat.
On July 25, Todd and I headed up north to find this elusive group. We decided we’d approach Esha Peak from two directions in order to cover more terrain and maximize our chances of seeing sheep. Todd hiked up the McGee Creek trail and then ascended a steep chute to a plateau just below the summit, while I hiked up Esha Canyon to the base of the peak.
There are days on this job when you let your superstitions run away with you. So often a quest to find sheep feels like a shot in the dark, and it’s hard not to ascribe undue importance to premonitions. The Esha Peak sheep had been seen only four or five times. As I slogged through bitterbrush at the mouth of the canyon I tried not to pay attention to the nagging hunch that whispered, “You’re not going to see any sheep today.”
I glassed chute after chute on my way up the drainage, even stopping to peer through my scope at a couple of very convincing white rocks, but there were no sheep between the mouth of the canyon and the lake at its head. I began scrambling up the ledges to the southeast of the lake, heading for the top of the Nevahbe Ridge, when the meadows below the summit of Esha caught my eye. I lifted up my field glasses and focused almost immediately on a distant shape. It had horns! It was moving! I had found an Esha Peak sheep.
Within a few minutes I had discovered seven other sheep bedded nearby. While I set up my scope, Todd popped over the edge of the plateau and found the sheep from above. Communicating over the radio, we determined that the group was composed of three adult ewes, three lambs, a yearling ewe, and a young ram. We watched as the animals got up one by one and began to graze, moving northeast across the slope. The lambs were very playful, to the obvious annoyance of their mothers, and the ram approached one ewe after another with his head lowered and his neck extended in the position known as the ‘low stretch.’ It was a remarkable feeling to know that I was now one of a handful of people in the entire world who had ever beheld these particular animals. This job may sometimes feel like a wild goose chase — but just as often, it’s a treasure hunt.
Although Todd and I were successful in finding one group of sheep, it’s very likely that the Convict Creek herd consists of more animals that we don’t yet know about. If you’re hiking or skiing in McGee Creek, Convict Creek, or the Pioneer Basin, keep an eye out for sheep sign and tell the Foundation or the Recovery Program if you find anything!