Mission Impossible II,
The Movie and the Bighorn Sheep
Text and Photos by Damian Fagan
Cue the theme song from Mission Impossible. You know, bump bump bada bump bump...dodoloo...I replay the message on my answering machine, "Damian, your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to monitor desert bighorns during
the filming of Mission Impossible II. This tape will self destruct in five seconds." Well, fortunately my answering machine didn't explode, and maybe that's not exactly how the BLM biologist worded his message...but that was the general gist of the message.
Paramount Pictures would be filming the opening scene of Mission Impossible II at Dead Horse Point State Park, near Moab, Utah. As part of the film permit, Paramount would have an on-site biologist who would monitor the activities of the desert bighorn, titans of the Canyon Country, while helicopter filming occurred. I would be that fortunate biologist.
Why monitor the bighorns? Desert bighorn were widespread in Utah. There images appear on many canyon walls in the form of petroglyphs made by the early inhabitants of the Canyon Country. Many bighorn sheep artifacts – fur, bones and horns – have also been found in prehistoric archaeological sites, testimony to the importance of this species to the ancient cultures that existed here long before Columbus discovered America.
Prior to the 1900s, for a species that thrived in a wild, relatively undisturbed landscape, human settlement in southern Utah had associated impacts that severely affected bighorn populations. The numbers of introduced livestock brought diseases, which the bighorn had no immunity for, and competition for limited food and water resources. Mining brought poaching for camp meat, camps set up near water sources, disturbances from machinery and mining activity, and increased human access, via the mining roads, into the heart of the bighorn's territory. Where once the bighorn roamed, now few sightings occurred.
By 1979, bighorn populations were estimated between 11,000 to 14,500 over six Southwestern states. Turn-of-the-century naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated the North American bighorn population around two million when the Spanish conquistador Coronado first appeared in their habitat in 1540.
Today, population estimates are over 20,000 sheep. Transplant programs, like one in the mid-1980s, transferred twenty-five bighorn from Canyonlands National Park to nearby Arches National Park, and have helped return the bighorn into its former range. Current estimates place that herd between 80 to 100 individuals. [DUSA Update Note: NPS says, "Sheep relocated to the San Rafael Swell west of Arches have created two herds totaling more than 600 animals." Read more here... ] Management of livestock populations, studies of impacts by recreationalists and resource extraction entities and some seasonal closures of traditional bighorn rutting and birthing areas have also aided the bighorn's return. Though some poulations are expanding, others are still in decline.
As part of the pre-monitoring program for the film, I scouted the area below Dead Horse Point for bighorns. Due to the start of the breeding season or rut, desert bighorns congregate into small bands of ewes, lambs and very young rams. These bands are joined by older rams who have spent most of the previous year alone or with one or two other rams, roaming a larger territory than the female's territory.
These rams engage in bouts of dominance, from head movements to kicking to full-on head butting. Using body language, the males establish their hierarchy in the herd, although brief fractures in this hierarchy occur daily. The ewes do not all enter their estrous cycle at the same time, so one ram may mate with several females.
In the classic clash of bighorns, when two mature rams raise their bodies, charge each other and then lower their heads in a sledge-hammer like smash to their opponent. Accepting the blow in the area between their horns, a massive area of tissue, absorbs much of the impact and protects the head, neck and cervical portions of the spine.
The younger or less superior ram will move off or give visual clues that it is "throwing in the towel."
Unfortunately, I don't get to see any spectacular head-butting while I'm watching helicopters and bighorns. In fact, I see only a few solitary rams that have not joined the local group of ewes and their lambs, whose territory spreads out below the massive ramparts of Dead Horse Point.
The week ends too quickly. The film crew packs their bags for other locations and the bighorn continue about their business. Though I've only counted ten sheep, I've been able to identify some individuals and family groups that seem to pay the filming project little mind. As I pack away my spotting scope and tripod, I feel fortunate for the opportunity to watch the bighorn and to "tend" over them like a protective shepherd. Mission accomplished.
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