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Lostine wildlife area - where bighorn roam

Photo/JIM WARD
Photo/JIM WARD
LOSTINE — In the early 1900s, Northeast Oregon's Wallowa County was up to its mountain tops in wool. In a land containing fewer than 6,000 people, more than a quarter-million sheep grazed the foothills, basins, and ridges of the high country. And soon after the mountain home of the native bighorn sheep became pastures for their domesticated cousins, the wild sheep began dying.

Hunting, poaching, disease, and overgrazing — these were the bighorn's killers, and in 1927 the Enterprise Record Chieftain reported that Wallowa County contained the last wild sheep in Oregon.

"Only one band of native mountain sheep remain in Wallowa County today," the newspaper said. "These are the sole survivors." And by 1945, even these were gone.

Today, however, bighorn sheep have returned to the Wallowa Mountains, and one of the best places to catch a glimpse of them, especially in winter, is at the Lostine Wildlife Area.

Situated approximately six miles south of the town of Lostine, the wildlife area consists of almost 1,000 acres of grasslands and timber that is managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) for mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk — but especially for bighorn sheep.

"There's just something about bighorns that stirs people's imaginations," says Vic Coggins, district wildlife biologist for the ODFW. Yet outside photographs or television, few people have ever seen a wild sheep.

The reason for this is the bighorn's mountain home. A visit there often demands a lung-wheezing, rock-grabbing clamber up through the clouds and into thin air. But when snow covers their food supply, the Lostine herd of Rocky Mountain bighorns eases out of the high basins and ridges and onto the wind-swept, sun-stroked lower slopes to find grass.

"The wind makes it good winter range," Coggins says.

High on the south-facing hills are patches of grass that feed the sheep, and so from November through May, from breeding to lambing, between 50 and 75 bighorns adopt the area as part of their winter home, as well as 100-200 mule deer and 75-100 Rocky Mountain elk.

To find the wildlife area from Lostine, turn off Highway 82 and head up the Lostine River Road through part of a glacier-carved valley that cuts the Wallowa Mountains. After almost six miles, all of them paved, a large sign marks the gated entrance to the wildlife area, but you'll have to nudge your car onto a narrow shoulder to park.

It was in this area — the site of the 1966 Silver Creek Fire, which burned 1,400 acres and cleared the slopes of living trees — that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife reintroduced bighorns to the Wallowa Mountains in 1971. Those first 20 sheep, consisting of 15 ewes and five bucks, came from Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada.

From these came the Lostine herd, which grew to approximately 125 sheep, providing the seed for other transplant projects designed to restore bighorns to their original Oregon range. But that plan almost crashed 15 years later, when the Lostine herd began dying.

The die-off began in November of 1986, when wildlife officials found dead sheep in the Wallowa Mountains. By the following January, reported the Wallowa County Chieftain, "up to two-thirds of state's oldest, largest and most established Rocky Mountain bighorn herd may have been felled by an unknown disease."

That disease turned out to be Pasteurella, a virus with two forms: one that is indigenous to bighorns and is triggered by dense populations, and one that is transmitted to bighorns by domestic sheep. Both forms are deadly. Before it ended in 1986, only 32 sheep survived.

To protect the survivors, officials closed the Lostine range both to public entry and to domestic sheep. Because of these measures, as well as the transplant of additional sheep, bighorns in Wallowa County now make up the majority of the more than 600 Rocky Mountain bighorns in the state. Part of the reason for this is the Wallowa Mountains themselves, which a spokesman for the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep calls "the finest bighorn sheep habitat in North America."

The search for the sheep begins on an old logging road that starts near the wildlife area's gate and cuts through bands of firs before leading uphill along the eastern slope, gaining elevation in a series of switch-backs. The depth of snow and your sense of adventure determine how far you wander from your car. You can stay near the gate and glass the slopes, hike or snowshoe up the trail, or ski along the flat, through the timber, and along the river bottom.

If you follow the road upward, you'll probably step in the tracks and beds of deer, even catch them staring at you from a distance as you climb the slope and head south, past a forest of burned snags that from a distance look like bristled toothpicks. You might want to pause to glass these open areas, for this is where the sheep gather.

Of the four subspecies of wild sheep in North America — Rocky Mountain and Desert bighorn, Dall and Stone — the Rocky Mountain bighorn is the largest. So if the snow pushes them down far enough, and if you have either binoculars or a spotting scope, you might see them.

To give you an idea of their size, an average ram is five or six feet long and measures about three feet high at the shoulder. It weighs approximately 200 pounds, though some large rams have topped 300; about 20 pounds of that is horns. Ewes are about three-fourths the size of rams, and their horns are much smaller.

Look for their gray-brown coats or white rumps, but spotting curled horns is a bonus; except during breeding season (late November and into December) the older rams usually hang out in bachelor gangs apart from the ewes and yearlings, which outnumber them.

If you see sheep, you can be sure they saw you first. The bighorn's main weapon of defense is its eyesight, which legend says is comparable to eight-power binoculars. "Mountain sheep can't hear thunder, can't smell a dead horse," said a nineteenth century sheep hunter, "but can see through thin rock."

Even with this acute vision, you might find yourself coming amazingly close to the sheep. "They've been climatized to us after years and years of handling," Coggins says. To both study and protect bighorns, wildlife officials have been collaring, feeding, trapping, and transplanting them since the beginning of the restoration projects.

So take your time and stop often to glass the slopes. Even if you take the uphill road, the trail is short — no longer than a two-hour hike to its end — and you'll soon find it narrowing to where you're stepping beside a steep downhill edge while shouldering past firs and spruce. If you don't feel like risking a snowy tumble and becoming part of the landscape, this might be a good place to turn around; otherwise, the slope ahead waits to be climbed.

But even if you don't see bighorns, a winter journey along their doorstep is worth the trip, for it takes you to a world of mountains and canyons, a world so wild it was once the domain of a legendary sheep named Spot—one of the first lambs born on the Lostine winter range, and the largest ram ever produced in the United States.

"It's just really unbelievable," Coggins says, "to think the biggest ram on record is from Oregon and that he was born right here in our own back yard." But at age 14, Spot — sometimes called "Old Scarface" for the wounds he carried from his battles with other rams — died in that same back yard during the 1986 Pasteurella outbreak.

Since then, he has become a symbol of this land, and each spring's lambs brings with them the hope that another Spot will emerge. And when he does, you can say you once visited his home.

 
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