The waste of a bighorn sheep, and a wolf gets fawned over

By Jayson Jacoby January 12, 2012 09:02 pm

Some cretin has illegally killed a bighorn sheep ram near Brownlee Reservoir.

This is like walking outside and shooting the neighbor’s cat.

Except there are too many cats as it is, whereas bighorn sheep are not so abundant around here that we can afford, biologically speaking, to sacrifice any to scofflaws.

Besides which bighorns are vulnerable to a strain of pneumonia, spread by domestic sheep, that can eradicate a bighorn herd with the ruthless speed of a parasite invented by Michael Crichton.

I write with some authority on the matter of bighorns, and in particular how easy it would be to poach one.

(Which, let me be clear, I have neither done, nor considered doing.)

The ram killed in late December was part of the bunch that roams around Connor Creek, a Baker County stream which flows into Brownlee.

During the two seasons when it’s legal to hunt bighorns there — Aug. 27-Sept. 7 and Sept. 10-25 — the sheep are relatively elusive.

But the rest of the year these bighorns are about as wild as a golden retriever.

My wife’s parents own a cabin along Brownlee, just a couple miles south of Connor Creek.

Several times during spring, summer or the elk-hunting season in early November, I’ve ridden a four-wheeler — hardly the stealthiest way to get around — to within 15 or 20 feet of a group of bighorns.

The sheep scarcely acknowledged my presence (another trait, come to think of it, that’s reminiscent of cats). The bighorns, including in many cases mature rams with fully curved horns as thick as a weightlifter’s biceps, placidly grazed while the four-wheeler’s single-cylinder engine burbled.

Had I been carrying a rifle (and during the elk seasons I was) I could easily have shot any of these sheep.

(And despite my pathetic marksmanship I could hardly have missed, so close and so accommodatingly still the sheep tend to be.)

I don’t mean to imply that the carefree nature of the Brownlee bighorns elevates this particular crime. Poaching is a heinous act whether the poacher kills a sheep that would probably gobble grass from your hand, or stalks a clever and suspicious bull elk for many miles and slays the animal with a running shot at 500 yards.

Yet I doubt I’m alone in reserving a special brand of disgust for poachers who take advantage of an animal’s utter lack of guile.

As is typical in such cases, the Connor Creek poacher mocked not only Oregon wildlife laws, but also the basic standards of decency that any true hunters treats as, well, sacred.

The poacher made off with the ram’s head and left the meat to rot.

If only I could be sure that the head, if it is ever mounted for display on someone’s wall, were branded with a bright scarlet “P” written in indelible ink.

 

. . .

 

In writing about the bighorn poaching case I strived to avoid excessive anthropomorphism.

I like to watch the sheep, sure. But I’m not planning to invite one over for a beer.

The folks at Oregon Wild, by contrast, employ no such filters in describing Oregon’s (and, at least temporarily, California’s) most famous wolf.

In fact, officials from the environmental advocacy outfit wax positively rhapsodic about OR-7. After reading emails I’ve received from Oregon Wild, and perusing its website, I’m inclined to think the wolf ought to work for the State Department, so impressive are his credentials as an ambassador.

Among the adjectives Oregon Wild has applied to OR-7: “adventurous,” “history making” and “iconic.”

(OR-7 even has a name now — Journey — thanks to an online election. But I think his original, bureaucratic, handle is more apt. OR-7 wouldn’t exist, after all, if the federal government hadn’t decided to reintroduce wolves to the Northern Rockies in the mid 1990s. And the feds, whatever their other faults, aren’t the least sentimental in designating wild animals.)

The wolf’s trip from Wallowa County to California — a sojourn that included a few weeks in Baker County, in fact quite close to where the Connor Creek bighorn herd lives — has been heralded as “spectacular,” “epic,” “astounding” and “amazing.”

I’ll concede that it’s kind of neat.

I hope wolves can recolonize Oregon without causing undue, and irreversible, damage to the state’s ranching industry.

Perhaps I’m a pollyanna, but I think this is possible.

My reaction to OR-7’s exploits, though, is neither ecstasy nor dread.

It’s jealousy.

I think it would be fun to take a few months off and strike out cross-country. Especially when you can live off the land, and have a built-in fur coat besides. It gets chilly in the woods at night.

I’ll even acknowledge the newsworthy aspect of OR-7’s journey — the first confirmed wolf to venture west across the crest of the Cascades in more than half a century.

All that said, it seems to me a trifle silly to try to spin a Homeric tale around a single wolf basically doing what single wolves do.

Which is wander about, looking for a mate.

And unless OR-7 finds one and begins a pack, this wolf, for all the headlines he has garnered (some of which I’ve written myself), will rank as a minor character in the greater story of the return of wolves to Oregon.

That story doesn’t revolve around individual wolves.

A single wolf — and in particular one which, like OR-7, tends not to linger — poses no great threat to cattle or sheep.

A wolf pack, on the other hand, can wreak havoc on herds.

It’s Oregon’s wolf packs, and in particular their appetite for domestic livestock, that will determine whether the wolf saga will unfold mainly in our mountains or in our courtrooms.

I don’t know how it will all come out.

But about one thing I’m certain: OR-7 doesn’t care, and neither does any other wolf.

Rob Klavins, Oregon Wild’s wildlands and wildlife advocate (a title so infused with wildness that Mr. Klavins’ business cards ought to be slabs of bark) was quoted by a TV station, referring to OR-7 entering California:

“It is all at once astounding and bittersweet to see this adventurous young wolf leave the state of Oregon,” Klavins said. “We hope that the Pacific Northwest population of wolves can overcome obstacles and continue to recover. For now, OR-7 can know that he’s always got a place to call home in Oregon.”

No, OR-7 can’t know that.

Because he’s a wolf.

You could camp out on the Oregon-California border for weeks on end, and plead until your larynx seizes for OR-7 to come back, and you’d be lucky to get so much as a howl in response.

Even if you call him Journey.

 

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.