Bighorn sheep in the Sierras
“If technology helps us save the wilderness, will the wilderness still be wild?” asked Daniel Duane recently in The Unnatural Kingdom (Opinion, The New York Times). He opens with a description of bighorn sheep grazing on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada in Yosemite National Park – a typically lyrical American scene. Bighorn were numerous in California until the nineteenth century, when imported domestic sheep brought in illnesses they had no resistance to, and their numbers plummeted.
America’s beloved wilderness expert John Muir hated domestic sheep. He called them “hooved locusts” and proclaimed that “one would rather herd wolves than sheep.” His anger was directed at farmers who denuded the mountainsides by clear-cutting whole forests to make room for more sheep and more profits. The invading beasts were markers, not of the pristine wild, but of the controlling hand of humanity. And as a side effect, their presence decimated that of their relatives, the bighorns.
But now bighorns are coming back, and ironically their return is largely due to the controlling hand of humanity, although this time via satellite technology. Using tracking collars with GPS and VHS radio transmitters alongside a host of other monitoring techniques and practical interventions, the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Recovery Program has had great success in restoring and managing the numbers of bighorns in the area.
“Wildlife managers are seizing more and more of nature’s relevant dials – predator and prey alike – and turning those dials to keep nature looking the way we want it to” writes Duane.
This approach, with all its positive intentions, offers much to be discussed – not least the fact that the animals it affects are now, it seems, living in their very own Truman Show. In that film, Jim Carrey’s life is constantly tracked and filmed, unbeknown to him. He only discovers the truth when he bravely voyages to the end of the world.
One wonders how a bighorn might react when, one day, she climbs a mountain to find herself standing at the edge of a giant stage set.