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[woodcut of John Muir] John Muir Writings

The Mountains of California, by John Muir (1894)

Chapter 14
The Wild Sheep

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( Ovis montana)

THE wild sheep ranks highest among the animal mountaineers of the Sierra. Possessed of keen sight and scent, and strong limbs, he dwells secure amid the loftiest summits, leaping unscathed from crag to crag, up and down the fronts of giddy precipices, crossing foaming torrents and slopes of frozen snow, exposed to the wildest storms, yet maintaining a brave, warm life, and developing from generation to generation in perfect strength and beauty.

Nearly all the lofty mountain-chains of the globe are inhabited by wild sheep, most of which, on account of the remote and all but inaccessible regions where they dwell, are imperfectly known as yet. They are classified by different naturalists under from five to ten distinct species or varieties, the best known being the burrhel of the Himalaya ( Ovis burrhel , Blyth); the argali, the large wild sheep of central and northeastern Asia ( O. ammon , Linn., or Caprovis argali ); the Corsican mouflon ( O. musimon , Pal.); the aoudad of the mountains of northern Africa ( Ammotragus tragelaphus ); and the Rocky Mountain bighorn ( O. montana , Cuv.). To this last-named species belongs the wild sheep of the Sierra. Its range, according to the late Professor Baird of the Smithsonian Institution, extends “from the region of the upper Missouri and Yellowstone to the Rocky Mountains and the high grounds adjacent to them on the eastern slope, and as far south as the Rio Grande. Westward it extends to the coast ranges of Washington, Oregon, and California, and follows the highlands some distance into Mexico.” [Pacific Railroad Survey, Vol. VIII, page 678.] Throughout the vast region bounded on the east by the Wahsatch Mountains and on the west by the Sierra there are more than a hundred subordinate ranges and mountain groups, trending north and south, range beyond range, with summits rising from eight to twelve thousand feet above the level of the sea, probably all of which, according to my own observations, is, or has been, inhabited by this species.

Compared with the argali, which, considering its size and the vast extent of its range, is probably the most important of all the wild sheep, our species is about the same size, but the horns are less twisted and less divergent. The more important characteristics are, however, essentially the same, some of the best naturalists maintaining that the two are only varied forms of one species. In accordance with this view, Cuvier conjectures that since central Asia seems to be the region where the sheep first appeared, and from which it has been distributed, the argali may have been distributed over this continent from Asia by crossing Bering Strait on ice. This conjecture is not so ill founded as at first sight would appear; for the Strait is only about fifty miles wide, is interrupted by three islands, and is jammed with ice nearly every winter. Furthermore the argali is abundant on the mountains adjacent to the Strait at East Cape, where it is well known to the Tschuckchi hunters and where I have seen many of their horns.

On account of the extreme variability of the sheep under culture, it is generally supposed that the innumerable domestic breeds have all been derived from the few wild species; but the whole question is involved in obscurity. According to Darwin, sheep have been domesticated from a very ancient period, the remains of a small breed, differing from any now known, having been found in the famous Swiss lake-dwellings.

Compared with the best-known domestic breeds, we find that our wild species is much larger, and, instead of an all-wool garment, wears a thick overcaot of hair like that of the deer, and an undercove ring of fine wool. The hair, though rather coarse, is comfortably soft and spongy, and lies smooth, as if carefully tended with comb and brush. The predominant color during most of the year is brownish-gray, varying to bluish-gray in the autumn; the belly and a large, conspicuous patch on the buttocks are white; and the tail, which is very short, like that of a deer, is black, with a yellowish border. The wool is white, and grows in beautiful spirals down out of sight among the shining hair, like delicate climbing vines among stalks of corn.

The horns of the male are of immense size, measuring in their great diameter from five to six and a half inches, and from two and a half to three feet in length around the curve. They are yelloish-white in color, and ridged transversely, like those of the domestic ram. Their cross-section near the base is somewhat triangular in outline, and flattened toward the tip. Rising boldly from the top of the head, they curve gently backward and outward, then forward and outward, until about three fourths of a circle is described, and until the flattened, blunt tips are about two feet or two and a half feet apart. Those of the female are flattened throughout their entire length, are less curved than those of the male, and much smaller, measuring less than a foot along the curve.

A ram and ewe that I obtained near the Modoc lava-beds, to the northeast of Mount Shasta, measured as follows:

Ram Ewe
ft. in. ft. in.
Height at shoulders 3 6 3 0
Girth around shoulders 3 11 3 3 3/4
Length from nose to root of tail 5 10 1/4 4 3 1/2
Length of ears 0 4 3/4 0 5
Length of tail 0 4 1/2 0 4 1/2
Length of horns around curve 2 9 0 11 1/2
Distance across from tip to tip of horns 2 5 1/2
Circumference of horns at base 1 4 0 6

The measurements of a male obtained in the Rocky Mountains by Audubon vary but little as compared with the above. The weight if his specimen was 344 pounds [Audubon and Bachman’s “Quadrupeds of NorthAmerica."], which is, perhaps, about an average for full-grown males. The females are about a third lighter.