Naturalist and environmental philosopher John Muir once referred to them as “the bravest of all Sierra mountaineers.” Who were these intrepid adventurers? Here’s a clue: they had more than two feet.
The Father of Our National Parks was talking about Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, the rarest sheep in North America. In fact, Muir was so impressed by the power and beauty of the bighorns’ movements that he wrote that they “did not make a single awkward step, or an unsuccessful effort of any kind.”
Graceful, alpine natives, bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada mountain range probably once numbered in the thousands. Starting in the late 1800s, however, Western settlers brought millions of domestic sheep into Yosemite National Park—sheep that carry pathogens that decimate wild bighorn populations. By 1916, disease and unregulated hunting had caused the Sierra Nevada bighorn to completely disappear from Yosemite.
Initial restoration efforts began in 1986, when 27 of the remaining Sierra Nevada bighorns were relocated to the crest of the Sierra Nevadas at the Yosemite National Park-Inyo National Forest border. Known as the Yosemite Herd, the relocated bighorns suffered severe setbacks due to mountain lion predation and extreme winter weather.
By 1995, it was estimated that only 20 individuals remained in Yosemite, with a total of 100 bighorn sheep left in the wider mountain range. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially listed the Sierra Nevada bighorn, a unique subspecies, as endangered; and, in a rare four-fifths majority vote, the California legislature approved funding for a recovery plan.
That’s why in the spring of 2015, nine ewes and three rams were moved from the Inyo National Forest and Sequoia National Park to Yosemite’s Cathedral Range, in the heart of the park. It marked the first time in more than 100 years that those rocky tops had bighorn hooves clacking across them.
The Cathedral Range was chosen for several reasons: its high meadows are filled with lush vegetation, its steep cliffs and outcrops supplied ample opportunities to evade predators, its remoteness offered separation from disease-carrying domestic sheep and there was potential for connectivity with existing herds.
It’s thought that today there are 600 bighorns in the High Sierra that are, in John Muir’s words, “leaping unscathed from crag to crag … and developing from generation to generation in perfect strength and beauty.”
Watch the video below, produced by the National Park Service and the Yosemite Conservancy, which describes this long-absent, wilderness icon’s return. Bighorn sheep will help restore the alpine ecosystem, and lucky backcountry hikers and visitors in Yosemite National Park may have the chance to see them in their native habitat.
Perhaps channeling John Muir, wildlife biologist Alex Few says in the video that the bighorn sheep’s ability to move through its terrain—one that’s in their very DNA—is impressive.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,