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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

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Chapter 34:  bighorns
Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada

4:58 A.M.: Vegas Boulevard, 79 F

It's still dark and this town never sleeps but at this time of day it does snooze a little. I sip from my thermos cup of iced coffee, glad of the relative emptiness of the boulevard with its zippy glitz, the adult fairy tale that lasts (they want you to think) forever; and glad too of the relative cool, which won't last long. I'm going to Lake Mead to look for desert bighorn sheep, and right now the heat is holding back for the power punch. I can tell.

Desert bighorn sheep are hard to find at the best of times, difficult to see; their country is hard to get to and once you're there the animals are the same color as it is. They stand motionless, giving you no clue. Or slide off uphill over impossible crags. This is what I know.

They need water in summertime, so mountains that have no summer water have no sheep in them. Otherwise, from Canada into Mexico and from Death Valley through Grand Canyon country, bighorns are to mountains as beavers are to watercourses: indivisible.

Bighorns are good to eat, and they are magnificent, and these are good reasons to hunt them; no one argues with the fact that bighorns have been hunted to near-extinction when they could be. They were hunted heavily by native people, and between that and the drying up of their landscape, the wild sheep were already gone from much of their ancestral range when the white man came with domestic flocks carrying diseases and parasites that could spread unchecked through the wild herds. Domestic sheep stayed in places until they wore out their welcome or the range or both. And the miners, ranchers, adventurers of the day had guns that could kill at a distance that an arrow or a spear never could. Hunting and domestic livestock acted like a one-two punch. Bighorns vanished from more ranges. The story is that, nowadays, hunters are putting them back.

***

There are people in the Nevada Department of Wildlife who work all year for the benefit of bighorns. They put catchments and dams in slickrock to make new watering places. They census the flocks and hand out hunting tags accordingly, so the sheep will not be harvested too much anywhere. They trap animals where they're numerous and move them to places where they're absent or scarce: a young nucleus herd to repopulate the range.

This year they will trap in the Black Mountains, an hour from here, in the southernmost tip of Nevada along Lake Mead. They aren't trapping today. Today they're laying out bait. The bait will be laid out daily until the sheep will come into the canyons, regularly, in numbers. When they do they can be trapped there: caught under nets, blindfolded, hobbled, carried in a boat and then a truck, and set loose somewhere else. Today the Department of Wildlife men are leaving the dock at Lake Mead at six A.M. in a boat, to bait the canyons and watch the sheep come in.

***

I have no trouble getting out of town. Once past Vegas the road cants uphill through a sprawl of fast-food joints and condos. The mountains rise flat and black; behind them the air is clear yellow with desert dawn. I stop at a buntinged fast-food box (it looks like a carton for a toy, red and white and thrown down upright in the dust), remembering the warning to down as much liquid as I can. The red quart-sized paper cup rattling with ice cubes seems as surreal as Vegas glitter. I sip fizzed sweetness like a medicine. The heat (they've warned me) will be deadly real. The only way to hack it is to drink and drink. Drink before you're ready to, long before you're thirsty. Once you're thirsty it's too late. You'll never catch up then, you're dehydrated to the danger point then, the human machinery of thirst was never designed for the Mojave in July.

6:04 A.M.: Lake Mead, 86 F

The boat has an open fiberglass hull, twenty-eight feet long and eight feet wide, powered by a 175-horsepower outboard. It was made for hauling sheep. It moves from the pier with skittery grace, with Craig Stevenson at the wheel and Adam and Scott and me sitting on our coolers in the middle.

Craig is a Fish and Wildlife biologist and he works all year with bighorns. This is his expedition. In the order of things at the department, Dan Delaney is the lead biologist; Craig is second in command. The bighorn transplant program was pioneered back in 1969, but when Dan came along in '82 he got things going in a big way.

Craig is mid-thirtyish, muscular, of middle height, and has the kind of face that slips into a smile without his really noticing. He has a farmer's head for apposite detail; he can scale a trophy ram by eye -- scale number being the result of a complex equation built from horn diameter, breadth, and length. All day long he takes into account the shapes of slickrock, the state of forage plants, the whereabouts of a particular ewe, the presence of burro dung, and countless other things, all of which are important to the sheep and important to him.

Craig may be absorbed in his work but he does not take himself too seriously. This is a combination that has, in anyone, considerable charm. Somewhere late in the morning it'll come out that his wife is eight months and two weeks pregnant, a fact that makes him proud and embarrassed in equal measure; the boys will tease him gently, making him go pink. Months later he'll write me a long detailed description of the remainder of his sheep-trapping escapades in the Blacks "working with a lot of girls and babies up there" and as a postscript: "My wife had the ram lamb on July 13. His name is Matt."

Adam Truran and Scott Huber are biology grad students, Craig's summer workers. They are as athletic and close-groomed as cadets. They tease Craig all the time. Craig replies in kind.

"We teach 'em the difference between management and research," Craig shouts over the engine roar. "We teach them it's the difference between reality and dreamland."

Scott and Adam roll their eyes.

"No, really!" Craig says, grinning now. They're all three grinning. "These boys put in nine, ten-hour days!"

"Craig takes care of us. Buys us Frosties," Adam says, loud enough for Craig to overhear.

"They're cheap dates," Craig says, and laughs.

***

"God, you got to remember who's paying the bill!" he shouts. The engine is revved now and we're scooting over the dark water, holding our hats.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is funded by hunters -- by taxes on guns and ammo and by the sale of hunting permits. The hunting of bighorn sheep is an exclusive business. If one comes from out of state, it will cost eight hundred dollars for a bighorn tag, and one can wait decades for the chance. For in-state hunters tags are cheaper but are also handed out by lottery, and once you've had a tag you have to wait ten years before you can put your name in the lottery again. Two tags are auctioned off every year: the minimum bid for these is twenty thousand dollars, and bids have gone as high as sixty-five. All of this is returned to the sheep in the form of management and protection.

"The reality is, if there was no funding and no one to represent the interests of wildlife, the big threat would be loss of habitat to development and indiscriminate hunting. Poaching. That's the reality!"

Even so, there are folks opposed to hunting under any terms.

"A lot of the media people in Vegas are from somewhere else," Craig says, "and are just about as un-outdoor-oriented as Vegas is. Their attitude is, we're just putting sheep out there so we can shoot 'em."

Scott grins. "Politics!" he says.

"Politics are pretty simple," Craig says. "Hunters versus nonhunters. Pretty simple."

***

We wear shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, shades, and perch on our coolers or the gunwales with farmish slouches, as if this were the bed of an empty pickup. Not quite empty, though. There are the two hundred-pound bales of alfalfa hay wrapped in a blue tarp. There is a pair of pantyhose stretched over the engine air intake to prevent alfalfa from clogging the engine. There is a big aluminum rake.

6:40 A.M.: Finger Cove, 89 F

The lake is windless and dark, loopily patterned with the light of reflected sky. Dawn painted the mountains a molten orange and spilled fire into air and water, then the sun rose over the mountains a moment ago, as if a furnace door had opened in our faces.

We pull into the first shadowed cove with relief. The lake level has dropped, leaving a flat of fine-grained muck:

"Don't step in that. You'll be gone so fast we'll have to pull you out by the ponytail."

"Scott calls it spooge."

"Stinks to high heaven if you pardon my French."

The sediment is fine, dark, semifluid as potter's slip. The tracks of great blue herons and smaller birds are punched in it as if stamped there by metal.

The lake has been dropping for some time, Craig says, due to the drought in general and the Greater Las Vegas area draw-down in particular. It's fifteen to twenty feet below normal, forty feet below the spillway of the Hoover Dam. As it drops it leaves a pale crust on vertical rock and spooge on any horizontal place. Bits of spooge float on the water surface, too; this is called gak. Where spooge has lain exposed for weeks it has dried, cracked deeply, baking hard in rough pentagonal geometry, in the familiar playa way. Where the sediment is fresh there's a sewerish smell to it, nastier than low tide.

There are carp in the shallows, bluegills, bass. The fish flick off, obliquely, shadows the shape of a finger or a hand. We cut the engine and slide in. The men scan rock walls and horizon.

Adam takes a chunk of alfalfa hay and the rake and we leap the spooge line to solid stone and walk up-canyon. We come to the place where wisps of hay have been scattered and trampled, flecked with pellets of dung. The dung looks like that of domestic sheep or goat, or deer, except that each pellet has a kind of nipple at one end and older bits have crackled longitudinally; they look like miniature pecans. It's important to notice these things.

Adam rakes the wisps into a pile and the new hay is loosened and laid out.

Around this bait are the metal posts that will, someday, hold the net.

"The posts get so hot you have to wear gloves," Craig tells me.

"How hot does it get?"

"Not hot enough to bother the sheep." He laughs. "Whatever it gets in town, add five degrees. We're lower out here."

"We're generally out of here before the heat peaks out," Scott says, squinting upward at the rugged slope whitened by sun.

"Brought plenty water?"

"Yes."

He nods.

***

The net to catch the sheep, they tell me, will be hoisted like a circus tent with four corner winchposts, four side posts, and an eighteen-foot- high centerpost. Between each connection and each support will be yellow rope with blast caps twisted into the weave. Craig and the boys will sit seventy-five to one hundred yards away, watching with binoculars, waiting to see that the sheep are well in under there before they blast the net.

Down at the cove will be a boatload of volunteers to help subdue the animals and carry them to the boat, once the net is down. The faster they're processed then the better, they have less time to injure themselves. It takes a man per sheep at least to hold them upright so they won't aspirate cud and get pneumonia, to keep their heads down to stop them struggling, to put the blindfold on -- a section of pants leg from a wornout pair, the soft cylinder of cloth pulled over the animal's face and held there by ties behind its horns. Then the sheep are hobbled with wide leather straps and carried to the boat.

"When they get the blindfold on they calm right down."

"Bunch of babies after that."

"They're a great animal to work with," Craig says. "Deer'lI try to kill you. Elk'll try to kill you. Antelope are fragile. Sheep ... sheep just want to get away."

Most of the volunteers will be members of the Fraternity of the Desert Bighorn, a group consisting almost entirely of hunters. The fraternity has given the transplant program hundreds of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours of free labor over the years, in spite of the fact that any one individual can only expect to get one bighorn tag in his entire life, and most of the fraternity has already had theirs. The transplant program couldn't work without them.

"Ever think you'd see an environmentalist out here? Doing something for the sheep?" Craig asks.

"Do they come, too?"

"Heck, no.  They're busy over at the legislature, where they can keep cool."

***

As we walk back to the cove, Scott stops, points to the horizon, and looks at me, nods.

"Right," Craig says, his voice low. "Two rams. A four, five-year-old. And a two-year-old."

What I see in black silhouette is what I've seen pecked in rocks at desert springs in the Arizona Kofas, along the Snake River in Idaho, in the Coso Range of California: a dark double curve as if an anchor stood upside down on the horizon, tines spread.

"Breakfast time, boys," Craig says.

7:45 A.M.: Boulder Wash, 90 F

Desert bighorn ewes average one hundred and five pounds, the rams between one hundred and forty and two hundred -- depending on age, the time of year, the state of forage. They are fattest just before the rut, in fall, but whatever their body size the dry weight of an average ram's horns is more than ten pounds. Think of carrying that on the back of your head, like a cast-iron jester's cap.

We've come through Black Canyon, sheer walls three and four hundred feet high around us like a fjord. In the cove of Boulder Wash the water is a strong green bordered by dry, steep mountains. One slope is made of boulders; above this looms a cliff face of brown tortured rock, all colors of volcanic ash and massive breccia. Lying on a ledge no wider than my shoulders, a single two-year-old bighorn ram is chewing its cud.

Aside from the silver snarls of dried up bursage, nothing grows here but a khaki-colored dusting of creosote bush, widely scattered and almost leafless with the drought. In the wash are smatterings of a yellow nettle, glistening with stinging hairs. This has been christened "snotweed" by the crew and is to be avoided at all costs; the hairs will sting like bejesus and if you get them in your socks no amount of laundering will ever get them out.

"What do the sheep eat?" I ask.

"Everything you see, they eat," Craig answers.

A pause.

"Creosote?"

"Absolutely."

"Snotweed?"

"I dunno about snotweed."

Later he'll write me that Adam and Scott saw a two-year-old ram eating snotweed. Like much of what they know about the sheep, this is anecdotal knowledge; it comes from the intimacies of their work among the animals, not from Official Print, not from the data-backed documentations of Official Research.

Sheep eat according to season, availability, and rain. In the uplands there is sagebrush, grass, juniper berries, mountain mahogany. Downslope the rams butt Joshua trees to shake off fruits, they nip agave stems and eat the fallen buds. They chew dry tree bark, cactus spines, fibers of yucca. They eat the flowers of pentstemon, primrose, thistle. They paw up and munch the roots of wild parsley, desert poppy. Nowhere in any book or published study does it say that they eat creosote.

***

A ewe appears on the skyline twelve hundred feet up, then another beside her. There's a blurt of sheep talk as the second one appears.

Craig looks through binoculars.

"The first one's a one-horn ewe. Pretty old gal. The second one is her lamb."

He lowers the binoculars.

"Last year she'd come to meet the guys in the cove." He nods toward Scott and Adam. "We had to push them up the canyon to place the bait. The sheep would circle within fifteen feet. She --" he nods toward the ewe on the cliff top, still peering down at us, so distant she could be a stick -- "she can get down here from up there in five minutes, when she wants."

"How old is she, then? How old do they get?"

"Don't know how old she is. Pretty far along."

He looks at her again, sweeps the horizon again:

"Oldest known wild sheep will be eighteen this year. Last year, that sheep raised a lamb. She's in the Last Chance Range. She was caught and tagged as a yearling in the Rivers. Later, she was transplanted up there. She's done well, that old gal."

"Why are you trapping in here?" I ask.

"According to the latest survey there are three hundred and fifty sheep in the Blacks, and this is a small range, and that's a lot of sheep."

He says that Dan Delaney wants thirty of them out of here this year. Of those they'll move twenty to the Gabbs Valley Range, northwest of Tonopah. The other ten they'll move to the Specter Range near Mercury.

"We've done four water developments in the Specters. There's not one sheep in there. This is a complete reintroduction."

"Where else are you trapping?"

"Boulder City."

"That's a city!"

"Yes, ma'am! We've had depredation complaints of sheep in Boulder City. That's a fast-growing community and it's great sheep country over there. People just moved into the bighorns' backyard and planted stuff that tasted great. What can I say? And one of these days some big ram'll lower his headgear and get some kid or old lady and then it'll be our fault."

He ups the binoculars again and does another sweep for horizon shapes, for flick of motion. We listen for echoes of dislodged stones, for the grating noise of bleats.

***

Craig baits five canyons in the Blacks. Like grazers and browsers anywhere, bighorns have daily rounds, amended but predictable, so that if you're predictable too -- laying hay down each day in the same place at some same hour -- the sheep will come.

Things go wrong. If it rains in the mountains the bighorns vanish. Summer rains are not the norm but there is no norm; so little rain ever falls in this part of the Mojave that the timing of its fall is not the slightest bit predictable. When it does rain, the natural stone hollows and tanks called tinajas fill up inland, and then the sheep stay up on their preferred "escape terrain" away from the lake. Last month a rain came and took the sheep off for more than a week. Now, right now, they're coming back.

When we're in the boat again and moving from the cove, we see a ewe, a yearling ram, and a lamb on the rocks, ten feet from the water's edge, aware of us but unafraid.

"Disney One." Craig laughs. He explains: "'Disney' means a ewe, a lamb, and a ram. Family style. That's what we say when we're doing the count. 'Disney Five' means it's a five-year-old ram. 'Disney Eight' means a ewe and a lamb with an eight-year-old ram, and so on."

A second ewe appears over the shoulder of brown rock. She takes a mouthful of creosote bush, and still chewing comes toward us over the stones. She stands staring at us as we leave.

8:45 A.M.: Little Gyps Cove, 94 F

At first I think it's a mountain of salt. It's gypsum; almost as soluble as salt, pale and dark in streaks and dissolved to holey laciness where it touches water.

It is strange in this heat to be floating into something that looks so much like rotting ice. As the boat slows, we get serious again about water. Each of the men drinks from a gallon-sized plastic milk jug. They tell me the trick is to fill the milk jug two-thirds with water and put it in the freezer overnight; in the morning you take it out and top it up with water. It thaws as fast as you can drink. They have two of these each.

The light is white in here and reflects more whitely from the gypsum of the cave. Cove, canyon -- hard to say what this is. For millennia these were canyons that led to the Colorado River. Now they are coves along Lake Mead. The comings and goings of water seem beside the point. The water is clear enough here to look down and see the shadowed plunge of what was once a canyon's walls. It seems familiar, this notion of drowning in what was dry; I've seen the opposite so much; playas, sinks, beaches of vanished lakes. Desert water is not to be trusted. Looking down into the drowned canyons' plunge, I hold the gunwales of the boat as if I were in air.

"Weird, huh?" Adam says. He's seen me doing this.

I nod.

"When we swim at lunchtime, we always use one of those floatable pillows.  Makes you feel like maybe you won't fall."

"Yeah. Drown."

***

Uphill there are dust heaps of volcanic ash and cliffs of breccia -- dark basaltic chunks embedded in tuff like raisins in bread. I have the old sense of tilt and tunneling, vertigo, in the evidence of stones and time: the gypsum was laid down in the bed of a saline lake as the lake dried to nil. Like dolomite and salt, gypsum is laid down in drying pans, but where and when or what lake it was that laid this silty mountain down as depth, not height, no one knows.

Gypsum is hydrated calcium sulfate. Fine-grained and massive, it's called alabaster; a fibrous silky form called satin spar is used for jewelry; it's called selenite as a mineral in soil. Calcined, gypsum becomes plaster, is used for plaster of Paris or wallboard. Here it's been topped by volcanics and is redissolving in Colorado River water, the warm green water of a man-made lake. Tilt, vertigo.

***

No sheep appear in Little Gyps. No one likes the whiteness of the sun.  We lay out hay, drink more water, as much as we can hold, and go.

9:53 A.M.: Coyote Cove, 102 F

On the way here we hauled the boat aside into a hollow like the inside of a huge stone pipe, like a cathedral belfry polished smooth, carved over years by flash-floodwater plunging down. I don't know why we went except that the place delighted them, they had nothing to say about it; they looked up, and held the boat away from the rock with their hands. Against the creamy stone the water was the color of pine needles at dusk, an almost paintlike green. In the slick rock overhead a canyon wren made its shady sweet desert noise: chew chew chew chew, a nasal descent of notes accompanied by coppery flicks of light through little wings. A lizard went up the rock in hurries and stops. That was all.

***

These summer months are the only months, Craig says, that bighorns need water every day. They need it now because of the parched forage and because of the heat. Their need for water limits the range they feed on and defines the places where predators can easily find them.

Resting, chewing their cud -- most of the time -- they like to lie up with backs to solid stone, where they can look out below and nothing can come at them from above.

Above Coyote Cove are two hollows in the rockface fifteen feet above the canyon floor, facing north, shady in midday with a view up the wash, old sheep beds that have been used for years. Now Craig and I are in one, the boys in another, perched in gravel and sheep pellets. Behind me is a packrat nest complete with eclectic collection: bobcat dung that looks like Tootsie Rolls, the leg bone of a lizard, two twist-off soda bottle tops, twigs of creosote. Below us, the heap of green alfalfa hay looks strange in the gravel and bleached rock. This is like the photographs I've seen of Mars: barrenness overexposed.

A rattle of stones: it's just a chuckwalla foraging along the canyon wall, a fat foot-long lizard with a jowly tortoisy face, jerky in his movements like a bogus dinosaur in an old sci-fi flick, one of those black-and-whites now the exclusive territory of serious insomniacs ... my mind must be going. More rattles of stones and then, as if the rock itself had poured into motion, seven sheep appear flowing down the cliff, sheep the color of the hot stone, taupe and cream and rust. Four ewes, three half-grown lambs, all their coats satiny and all of them fat. They touch down on the canyon gravels with the rump-high head-high trot of animals in high spirits and high health.

Later a ram comes down the wash. He's a three- or four-year-old, as square-bodied as a beef bull and with a set of horns so massive that he seems misshapen. Notice the grace with which he lifts his chin to scent the ewes, like a woman with a grand coiffure. He comes on with little rushes, stopping to lift his chin again and roll his eyes, making a grand entrance that the ewes and lambs ignore. They go on eating, butting one another off the hay, dragging wisps away, the lambs cocking their heads back and swinging their rumps, teasing each other, the ewes digging expertly to get the soft leaf meal; like cake to them, I imagine.

Another ram appears, more slowly, from the east. Craig nods and lowers his chin to his chest.

"Five-year-old," he says, in a whisper, having counted the growth lines without binoculars.

"Good God," I say, nothing else being appropriate to say. This ram looks as if he were wearing a pair of golden tires.

"You haven't seen a big one yet." Craig laughs under his breath.

The older ram comes down with no fuss to the ewes and smells their rumps one by one in a businesslike way. They squat and pee for him without for a moment stopping their attack on the hay. He throws his head back and lifts his lip, smelling their urine for the scent of estrus, with an assayer's exactitude; between each sniff and lip-lift there's a connoisseur's pause. It's not mating season, none of the ewes is in estrus now. That doesn't matter to him, he gives each one of them attention, he is a professional.

11:35 A.M.: Bearing Cove, 117 F

There is a western grebe on the water of the cove here; it looks like a rusty bathtub toy. Eight rams stand shoulder to shoulder up the wash as if they were penned: this summer bachelor group is typical of the sheep, Craig says, the ewes usually traveling together in a matriarchal herd, the rams in a separate bunch: a rule to which there are countless Disney exceptions.

We don't stay long, though there are plenty of sheep here. The mountains loom like charcoal, grayed over with ash, red-hot. My skin crisps as though I were standing in the middle of fires. The breeze from the peaks is like the air that rises from the oven when you lean to check the roast.

We rake the scattered wisps, place fresh bait, take a look at the ram bunch through binoculars. They stand in the full sun, without moving. I feel nauseated; I breathe and don't seem to take anything in. The men's faces look set. When we reach the lake again, I follow their example and wet my arms and legs but am dry before the engine starts up. Later I'll find out that today was the worst day of a record-breaking heatwave that has rolled across the Southwest, going high into the 120s in all these desert valleys, though at the time I think that this heat is nothing exceptional, that this is the way it always is.

In the rocks by the cove there are six more sheep: an older ewe with a lamb, a lone middle-aged ewe, and three yearlings -- two ewes and a ram -- grazing and picking among the stones. They look at us and we look back as if this were a barnyard, not the Black Mountains of the Mojave and the green silty water of the dammed Colorado, but as though this were the usual way of things.

But it is not usual. It is, in fact, revolutionary.

The archaeological records that I've read elsewhere say this: ten thousand years ago, in the Zagros Mountains of Iran and Iraq, people stopped being merely predators of wild sheep. They began to drive off other predators. They began to select their own prey: they harvested older rams instead of younger tastier ewes. They did this with a view to the future. The bones in their Neolithic caves say that this happened almost overnight: a revolution. A new symbiosis.

Here it is again: sheep and people with nothing wonderful about it, though everything about it is wonderful. In spite of the heat the men smile between attacks at the water bottles. They smile at each other and at me and at the bighorns, too.

Desert Bighorn Ram Drinking at a Spring:  The ram is a seven-year-old. Notice the broken edge of his horns, cracked off in some mating battle. This was drawn from a photo taken by Craig Stevenson.

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