Dall’s sheep adorn the front range of Chugach State Park
Years ago, when I lived in Anchorage’s Hillside, I would sometimes watch Dall’s sheep from my front yard. Even through binoculars, they were little white dots on the green or brown slopes under a landmark in Chugach State Park called Rusty Point. I have always considered wonderful to watch wild white sheep roam their alpine lands as I stood in my own suburban neighborhood, with its houses, roads, gardens, garbage collection and lawn mowers. .
Now a resident of the Turnagain area of Anchorage, I still consider it a remarkably wonderful circumstance to live in a town so close to the primary habitat of the Dall sheep. I suspect many residents don’t know, and maybe don’t care, that our neighbors include wild sheep. But for many of us who venture to the Chugach waterfront, their presence is a treat, even when viewed from afar; and it’s one that never decreases, at least for me.
I had my first close encounter with the wild sheep of Chugach in the early 1980s, after moving here to cover sports for the Anchorage Times – I was later to become the newspaper’s outdoor writer. Also a devoted nature photographer at the time, I once climbed the cliffs near Windy Corner and for a short time shared the company of half a dozen ewes, lambs and teenagers.
Sometimes the sheep and I would approach within 15 or 20 feet of each other, their curiosity matching mine, or so it seemed. Perhaps they wondered what kind of foolish human would risk his life to walk and stumble down such steep and crumbly slopes.
Before going back down, I took several photos. The one that has become a personal favorite shows a Dall’s sheep sheep and his lamb, both staring directly at the viewer, only their white upper body and heads visible behind gray boulders splattered with lichen. The faces of the two seem calm. Curious. Yet their large golden eyes, erect ears, and pursed lips also suggest caution. And maybe some uncertainty. It is as if the sheep will move away if the human it is watching closely approaches or makes a sudden, awkward movement.
It is no coincidence that my encounter with these regular sheep happened a short distance from Windy Corner, a landmark along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage – and arguably the best place on Earth. to see Dall’s sheep up close.
I don’t know how many residents appreciate how amazing this event is. To put it in perspective, consider that several thousand Dall sheep inhabit the state’s mountain ranges, from south-central Alaska to the Arctic. They are treasured wildlife symbols of three national parks: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias and the Gates of the Arctic. But nowhere are they more accessible to the public than the Windy Corner area of Chugach State Park, a half hour drive from downtown Anchorage and the only place in the world where people can spot bighorn sheep. of Dall as the two stand near sea level.
Ewes, lambs, teens, and young adult sheep inhabit steep cliffs and grassy meadows above the Seward Highway for much of the year, closest to the road between terminals 106 and 107 The maximum observation takes place in summer, after the farrowing of the ewes. The best time to see sheep is usually early in the morning, although they are sometimes visible throughout the day. Up to 50 people have been spotted on the highway, but a dozen or less is more the norm. It is only rarely that older rams with large curls are present; they seem to prefer the loneliness of the hinterland to busy road corridors.
While the sheep’s high visibility is a guaranteed treat for wildlife lovers, it has at times proven to be a management headache for Chugach State Park staff and state soldiers, the one of the reasons why a redesign of the highway is planned.
For those who would like to know more about these splendid and hardy creatures, I will present here a medley of natural history facts and figures about white and wild sheep, which are named after the American naturalist William Healy Dall.
Adult male and female members of the species normally live apart, except at the start of the mating season in winter. Just before the rut, and sometimes throughout the year, mature rams encounter fierce battles that, according to scientists, determine their place in the social order of the group and, therefore, its reproductive order. Face to face, two rams rise up on their hind legs, then charge and “shock the horns” with a powerful bang that has been compared to that of a baseball bat slammed against a barn door. Adult females, too, occasionally bang their heads, apparently to determine social rankings.
The ewes produce a single lamb in late May or early June. As birth nears, a gravid sheep will set off on its own and head for steep, rugged terrain where predators are less likely to be found. Lambs generally do well their first summer, when food is plentiful, but half or more may die their first winter, depending on the severity of the season. Sheep that survive their first winters can live between 12 and 15 years. Mature rams at their peak can weigh 200 pounds or more, ewes 110 to 130 pounds on average.
Both sexes of adult sheep have horns, although only males develop the broad, broad, and outwardly curved horns so often seen in photos. As rams grow older, their horns gradually form a circle when viewed from the side and reach a full circle or “curve” in seven to eight years. The amber colored horns are male status symbols; large mature rams can sometimes be seen showing off their horns in front of other sheep as a sign of their dominance. Those of the females are shorter, slender tips that resemble the horns of mountain goats, which sometimes leads people to confuse the two species. But goat horns are shiny black and sharper than sheep horns, and goats also have more massive breasts. On top of that, their ranges rarely overlap.
Dall’s sheep are grazing animals that feed on a variety of plants, including grasses, sedges, willows, and herbaceous plants; in winter, they survive on lichens, moss and dried or frozen grass. They prefer to stay high up, in places that combine open alpine ridges and grasslands with steep slopes, as their climbing skills make it easier to escape predators on such steep, rugged and mountainous terrain.
Besides humans, wolves are the most effective predators of sheep, but grizzly bears, coyotes, lynxes, and wolverines sometimes successfully hunt the species, and golden eagles can prey on young lambs.
Over the years, I have written often about my love for Chugach State Park and in particular its waterfront, which borders Anchorage and is my favorite place all year round to immerse myself in the wilderness. Dall’s sheep are part of the reason this place has become – and remains – so special to me.
When I venture into the Chugach Mountains these days, I only carry a point-and-shoot digital camera – my iPhone – and I’m accompanied by a canine companion. So when I look at Dall’s sheep, it’s from a distance. But now it is enough for me to see them from afar, to know that we share the landscape. What a privilege to visit their Alpine homelands so easily.
Anchorage nature writer and wilderness / wildlife advocate Bill sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of over a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife”.
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