Feb 15, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff WriterThe last survivor of the Sinks Canyon's big horn sheep herd died this month.
The ram, nicknamed Bam Bam, died far from his home and away from the wild at a Wyoming Game and Fish research facility in Sybille Canyon near Wheatland. Game and Fish moved the sheep there in 2009.
Disease from domestic sheep annihilated Bam Bam's herd and interaction with humans ruined the animal for a life in the wild.
Bam Bam's biography has provided a lesson on keeping wild animals wild, said Game and Fish wildlife biologist Stan Harter.
"We need to do a better job educating people they are still wild animals," Harter said. "We should have moved him long before, at the first sign of aggression or habituation."
In the summer of 2009, Bam Bam, another ram and a ewe were the only remainders from the Sinks Canyon herd which peaked at 56 in 1986. All three started to approach visitors to the canyon, seemingly asking for handouts, which they often received, Harter said.
In turn, Bam Bam became aggressive, head butting cars and menacing people on foot.
Harter said human food can hurt big horns, which have specialized diets. Their aggression also destroyed property and put people at risk.
The habit of approaching wild animals can also hurt people later if humans try too get close to a predator or other dangerous animal, Harter said.
That summer Game and Fish employees worked to educate visitors on staying away from animals and not feeding them. The agency also issued citations for getting too close to the sheep.
Harter said he and other Game and Fish workers tried to keep the wild sheep away from humans by scaring the animals with firecrackers and other means.
No matter what they did, the sheep returned to the canyon and approached people again.
One day Bam Bam cornered a small group of people on the deck over the rise of the Popo Agie. Bam Bam was fond of the fish food sold there and was possessive of it, Harter said.
Soon after the incident, Game and Fish workers trapped Bam Bam and moved him to the Canyon of the North Fork of the Popo Agie some 10 miles away.
He was back within a month, though, Harter said, and the animal seemed to be even more aggressive so the agency decided to move Bam Bam out of the area completely.
'Served no purpose'
Game and Fish workers tried to lure the animal into a horse trailer with alfalfa pellets, but he just spit them out, Harter said. Then one worker had an idea.
He unwrapped a candy bar and crinkled the wrapper in the horse trailer.
Showing just how habituated Bam Bam had become, it worked.
"All of a sudden he just came charging in," Harter said.
They closed the gate, and drove him away.
"He was reduced from a wild animal to nothing more than a zoo animal," Harter said. "He served no purpose."
The other two sheep living in Sinks Canyon disappeared after the agency removed Bam Bam, and some reports indicate they moved to another area.
Harter added that research facilities do not have much room.
A devastating pneumonia outbreak among big horns in the Wind River Mountains before Bam Bam was born taught the Game and Fish department another lesson.
"The pneumonia has created committees in the department and around the West to study how domestic sheep interact with wild sheep and manage big horn sheep population," Harter said.
From 1960 to 1993, Wyoming Game and Fish transplanted 276 big horn sheep into the Temple Peak big horn herd. The agency moved 113 sheep into Sinks Canyon and others into the canyons of Cherry Creek, North Fork of the Popo Agie River and the South Fork of the Little Wind River.
Agency reports show those populations were declining by 1986, and they plummeted in 1992.
In the spring of 1992, a herd of domestic sheep was introduced just north of Sinks Canyon, a flock that later tested positive for pneumonia.
Exposure to pneumonia is almost 100 percent fatal for big horns, Harter said.
Agency reports showed contact between the domestic and wild sheep, and the first big horn was reported coughing in July. The domestic flock was removed in August, but by September the first confirmed case of a Temple Peak big horn pneumonia death occurred.
Several more soon followed. At the end of the year, Game and Fish officials revised their population estimate down from 131 to 59.
Agency reports said the Sinks Canyon herd continued to decrease because of the lack of quality winter range and because the sheep were not migrating.
A few farther up
Harter said he does not know of any sheep living in Sinks Canyon currently, but there are probably 20 to 30 living farther up in the mountains around South Fork and North Fork canyons and a handful around the Little Popo Agie.
Their distance from humans may have helped those sheep survive when Bam Bam and his herd did not.
"I think it's more isolated from people," Harter said about the habitat higher in the Wind River Mountains. "It may be a little better habitat, but there's some very similar features (to Sinks Canyon)."
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