Last Rites for a Desert Bighorn
Nature At Work Part 3
By Ranger Jim Meier
It was most unusual to see Mama Ewe standing in the same spot where I'd last seen her. But there she was, in the clearing at Lower Willows in Coyote Canyon where I'd seen her two days before during the bighorn sheep count. Four legs spread wide; her head hung as if muscles were not attached. Drainage flowed from her eyes and nose. Something must be done!
I brought the Jeep to a slow roll and hopped out. Mama Ewe was so engrossed with her own condition that she failed to notice my arrival at first. Slowly her eyes turned my way. However, my movement immediately caught Coyote's eye from his nearby observation point in the rabbit brush. Periodically he sniffed the air as if to determine whether any competitors were lurking in the vicinity. Finally, he trotted off with quick impatient steps, stopping to glare at the busybody ranger who had nothing better to do than disturb a fellow about to have the meal of his life.
I could see from the track in the soft streamside ooze that Coyote had come right up to Mama Ewe. Was he a gentleman and just took a look, or did he succumb to his hunger and take a little nibble? Where was Lamb? During the sheep count, Ron and Dave had spotted Lamb every day. The fact the Coyote still looked very hungry was an encouraging sign that Lamb might l still be around.
I heard a small rock fall off the ridge above. There stood Lamb with a new ewe staring intently at the drama unfolding below. Was it possible that Lamb had been adopted by another ewe? It certainly seemed so. Wiping a bandana over the binocular lenses, I began to gaze at Mama. She still had not taken even one step. Slowly her head dropped to drink. Water poured from her lips, too weak to close. The drainage resumed.
Coyote had found another vantage point, a short distance away. He was very content with his situation. My hand reached down and "ripped my revolver. Dispatching sick and wounded animals fell within my duties. Someone must stop Mama's suffering. I must intercede and stop this... NO, this is a wilderness, and I am a mere guest.
The screeching of the cicadas and the three-digit heat took my thoughts was away Then Mama turned and looked right at Coyote. Coyote blinked nervously and dropped his head. Mama looked at me with a tranquil gaze of acceptance. Coyote would wait.
I never saw Mama Ewe again, but I'm certain a weak immune system, sinusitis, and probably a para-influenza claimed another peninsular bighorn. With luck Mama did not pass it on to Lamb. Even though I'd patrolled Coyote Canyon full time and had made a commitment to travel the entire canyon weekly, it wasn't until the annual sheep count that I'd become aware of the bighorn's plight. Without the annual three-day monitoring of known bighorn watering holes, I'd probably have missed Mama's scenario.
It was the tenth sheep count of my life, the umpteenth for Mark Jorgensen. For the first time I felt I knew the reason for his lifetime endeavor to save the bighorn. Now a resource ecologist, Mark has worked with bighorn since his teens. He has armed himself with tactics found to be successful with other bighorn populations. Water hole enhancements, rain-fed guzzlers, necropsies, removal of competing feral cattle, seasonal closures, poaching enforcement, and capture and collar with antibiotic inoculations are among the tools Mark has employed for his "borrego." Still the numbers of bighorn fall.
I saw Coyote three more times before moving on to a new assignment on the Santa Rosa patrol sector around Clark Valley. He always took time to stop and look before he trotted off with those quick impatient steps. He hadn't forgotten either.
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