Tracking the Bighorns

Where do the elusive mountain climbers go? Researchers have finally learned some answers

Two Bighorn rams (D. Robert and Lorri Franz)
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Such isolation might protect the animals. In the 1980s, an outbreak of pneumonia wiped out 65 percent of southern Alberta's bighorn sheep and infected Many Glacier's population. But the Two Medicine herd was spared.

Six months after i watched Keating and his crew collar sheep, we met again below Rising Wolf Mountain on a gusty day in May. We hiked up the purple pasqueflower-lined trail, listening to beeping radio signals picked up by three telemetry antennas. "Glacier is one of the worst places for radio tracking," Keating said, turning in a slow circle with an antenna overhead. "The mountainous terrain ricochets signals off cliffs, sending a strong beep from both the collar's location and its opposite direction." Our primary goal was to find six collars, most of which had been programmed to fall off two days earlier.

Our other task was to collect feces from ewe 118, the one we had collared in the fall. Hormone levels in fecal samples, which Keating sends to the National Zoo for analysis, indicate whether a ewe is pregnant. By combining this information with field observations of birth rate and survival rate, Keating can predict the herd's population growth. Ewe 118 was browsing on a steep hillside amid 40 sheep still in their white winter coats. Schmitz and another researcher pursued her across snow, ridges and cliffs. We wouldn't see them again for eight hours.

The rest of us followed well-worn sheep paths uphill—scrambling over rocks, slipping on pebbly scree. We were in prime bighorn territory, and collar 568 lay in plain sight on the rocks. Another collar was buried beneath early winter snows. Keating donned crampons and grabbed an ice ax to ascend a small, steep couloir, and dug it out.

As we trekked out along the muddy trail, sun glinted off Rising Wolf's snow-packed gullies. After 11 hours of hiking in Glacier's moody weather, we'd collected one ewe's scat, counted 84 bighorns and found four of six collars. Keating's pack cradled thousands more bighorn location points full of surprises.

Becky Lomax is the author of Moon Handbooks: Glacier National Park and was a hiking guide in the park for 10 years.


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