October 11th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 40
Looking Back - John Kinnear
On Observing Ovis Canadensis
Looking Back
John Kinnear
A troop of rams heads out
For thirty one years I travelled every day to work to the Line Creek coal mine in the Upper Elk Valley. The road access to that mine goes through a spectacular steep canyon where the beautifully clear Line Creek waters flow through to meet the Fording River. It is hard to describe just how remarkable this east west canyon area of the Wiksukitak Range is but suffice to say in those 31 years I never failed to be in awe of its grandeur.

The canyon has an ancient and important history as a First Nation’s access way through the Rockies to the buffalo herds of the prairies. During construction of the access road in the early 1980’s a series of primitive pictographs were encountered, documented and carefully extricated before construction could damage them. Their interpretation is unclear but the canyon was undoubtedly an important and perhaps sacred place to them.

The 3 kilometer access road through the canyon required the construction of no less than seven bridges and a massive snow shed along with several bin walls designed to protect the integrity of the creek. Having passed through this steeply pitched gap of mostly vertically limestone several thousand times I observed, on many occasions, all manner of wildlife. This included mountain goats with their kids at the salt lick at the entrance, harlequin ducks and dippers working the creeks waterway and massive dolly varden (bull trout) building their redds (nests) in the gravels of the creek bed. In the early 1980’s a massive fish fence was built at the entrance to the canyon with upstream and downstream fykes (traps). It those early study years I had occasion to observe an environmental technician document one of these bulls before releasing it. A scale sample and egg sample was taken and the specimen weighed in at 13 pounds! One severe winter three bull elk, all six pointers, spent several weeks in the canyon, bedded down, clearly exhausted from their rutting antics.
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But it was one particular wildlife species indigenous to the Line Creek valley on the east side of the canyon that I became a dedicated watcher and photographer of. Through those three decades at the mine my job evolved with technological change into the different fields of survey, geology, coal quality and blasting. This afforded me an almost unprecedented access to all areas of the property. In my daily travels I almost inevitably encountered gatherings or troops of Ovis. Those spectacular and majestic Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

They were there long before we showed up to dig holes and adapted to our presence to the point where most of us were not surprised to encounter them, even as we boarded the buses to and from work. The Line Creek bighorns are part of a series of herds that stretch from the Coal Mountian turnoff on Highway 3 to the north end of the Fording Mine (Henretta Creek).

My fascination with the bighorns resulted in me learning a lot about their behavior and I accumulated hundreds of pictures of them individually and in groups. It was not unusual to come across a troop of as many as 13 rams, varying from full curl to half curl, walking single file down a haulroad. There seemed to be a pack order and usually one of the top dogs (dominant ram) was leading the pack. Of course achieving that dominant spot entailed what most of us have seen dramatically depicted in wildlife films.

The assertion of dominance is a complicated ritual in which rams of comparable size hang out and test each other, fighting for what I like to call “pole position”. I observed all kinds of challenging displays and gestures that seem to be well choreographed and which sometimes ended in a brutal encounter. It was usually an inferior (horn and weight size) male who would throw down the gauntlet, so to speak, by various postures, stares, lip curls and insults to get the challenged to respond. The insult that always caused me to wince was the front leg kick in the you-know-what.
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I found it most interesting to watch this hormone driven circus unfold. It seemed like a group of younger rams would gather together and goad one of the bigger rams by following him around. It reminded me of gangs of kids that used to prowl the town where I grew up, looking for trouble. The challenged ram usually would walk away, twisting his lowered head from side to side in what the renowned wild sheep specialist Valerius Geist called the “low stretch.” It is quite the spectacle to watch.

I also noticed that the challenged ram would maneuver in order to have an uphill advantage if and when he turned to charge his challenger. This undoubtedly added a bit of gravitational force to his impact. I also observed that both rams would rear up at the last second to add yet more force to their charge. The sound of that impact is one that you don’t soon forget and sometimes can be heard from a great distance. Like the crack one hears in a bowling alley.

Most of the time the rams hung out in lazy packs, sunning themselves on southern exposures of rock or shale where they had scraped out a shallow bed. I noticed often that when completely at rest they would lay their chin on the ground or rest their big heavy head on the ground to support is weight as they slept. The rams also liked to hang out on the giant road berms built on mine haulroads as it afforded them a clear view around them. So consequently a lot of my pictures of them tended to be over exposed as I looked up at them on the skyline.

It was not unusual to find a group of rams and sometimes ewes and their lambs hanging out right in front of the office entrance. They were always on the lookout for salt or some equivalent. In the spring the ewes are very ragged looking and salt starved. The winter forage they depend on up high on wind-blown ridges above the mine is quite low in mineral content so subsequently they attack their own skeleton to satisfy their metabolic needs. As their lambs grow inside them the need to grow its skeleton exacerbates this attack and later during lactation it continues. Is it any wonder they are so driven to highway salt?
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This attraction to the parking lot area in front of the mine office led to some amazing photo ops and also to a rather humorous big ram incident on occasion. I found myself several times on one side of the front entrance windows with one or more huge rams standing on the other. They apparently could not discern my presence that close through the glass and it allowed me to study their annular rings on their horns which when counted reveals their age. On the other side of the window the ram, unfortunately, was seeing his reflection. This usually led to some posturing and the occasional bluff charge which of course resulted in shattered glass. It proved prudent at certain times of year, like rutting season, to tape cardboard or paper to the windows to minimize this “reflection confrontation”.

I can tell you emphatically there is nothing more adorable than a bighorn newborn lamb. It is interesting to note that the ewes consume the birth liquids and membranes of their lambs to return important elements to her physical makeup and also to reduce detection by predators. New lambs must adapt quickly and start on solid food only a few days after being born.

In 2009 a big horn sheep study was conducted by the Elk Valley Bighorn Sheep Committee and funded by Teck Coal to assess the area populations and their movement corridors, lambing areas, mineral licks, seasonal ranges and survival rates. It was also designed to answer questions like their seasonal use of reclaimed areas versus natural habitats. Thirty nine sheep were collared with gps devices over a two year period. From the results of the study it appears that the Elk Valley east herds are doing just fine.
October 11th, 2017 ~ Vol. 87 No. 40
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