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Dall sheep grace Chugach State Park’s front range

Years ago, when I lived on Anchorage’s Hillside, I would sometimes watch Dall sheep from my front yard. Even through binoculars, they were small white dots on the green or brown slopes below a Chugach State Park landmark called Rusty Point. I always considered it a marvelous thing, to watch the wild, white sheep move about their alpine homelands while I stood in my own suburban neighborhood, with its houses, roads, gardens, garbage pick-up and lawn mowers.

Nowadays a resident of Anchorage’s Turnagain area, I still consider it a remarkably wonderful circumstance, to live in a city so close to prime Dall sheep habitat. I suspect that many residents don’t know, and perhaps don’t care, that our neighbors include wild sheep. But for lots of us who adventure in the Chugach front range, their presence is a special treat, even when seen at a distance; and it’s one that never diminishes, at least for me.

I had my first close encounter with the Chugach’s wild sheep in the early 1980s, after I’d moved here to cover sports for the Anchorage Times — I was later to become the newspaper’s outdoor writer. Also a dedicated nature photographer at the time, I once scrambled up the cliffs near Windy Corner and for a short while shared the company of a half-dozen ewes, lambs and adolescents.

At times, the sheep and I came within 15 or 20 feet of each other, their curiosity a match for mine, or so it seemed. Perhaps they wondered what foolish sort of human would risk his life to walk and stumble along such steep and crumbly slopes.

Before descending, I took several pictures. One that became a personal favorite shows a Dall sheep ewe and her lamb, both gazing directly at the viewer, only their white upper bodies and heads visible behind gray, lichen-splattered rocks. The faces of both appear calm. Inquisitive. Yet their large golden eyes, erect ears and pursed lips also suggest caution. And maybe some uncertainty. There’s a sense that the sheep will bound away if the human they’re intently watching steps any closer or makes some sudden, awkward move.

It was no coincidence that my encounter with those habituated sheep came a short distance from Windy Corner, a landmark along the Seward Highway south of Anchorage — and arguably the best place on Earth to see Dall sheep up close.

I’m not sure how many residents appreciate just how amazing this occurrence is. To put it in perspective, consider that many thousands of Dall sheep inhabit the state’s mountain ranges, from Southcentral Alaska to the Arctic. They’re prized wildlife symbols of three national parks: Denali, Wrangell-St. Elias, and Gates of the Arctic. But nowhere are they so accessible to the public as Chugach State Park’s Windy Corner area, a half-hour’s drive from downtown Anchorage and the only place in the world where people can watch Dall sheep while both are standing near sea level.

Ewes, lambs, adolescents and young adult sheep inhabit steep cliffs and grassy meadows above the Seward Highway for much of the year, coming closest to the road between mileposts 106 and 107. Peak viewing occurs in summer, after the ewes have given birth. The best time to see the sheep is usually early morning, though they’re sometimes visible throughout the day. As many as 50 have been spotted from the highway, but a dozen or fewer is more the norm. Only rarely are the older, big-curl rams present; they seem to prefer backcountry solitude to busy highway corridors.

While the sheep’s high visibility is a guaranteed treat for wildlife lovers, it has at times proved a management headache for Chugach State Park personnel and state troopers, one of the reasons that a highway redesign is planned.

For those who’d like to know more about these splendid, hardy creatures, here I’ll present a potpourri of natural history facts and figures about the white, wild sheep, which are named after American naturalist William Healy Dall.

Adult male and female members of the species normally live apart except during the early winter mating season. Just prior to the rut, and occasionally throughout the year, mature rams butt heads in fierce battles that scientists say determines their place in the band’s social order and, consequently, its breeding order. Facing each other, two rams rear up on their hind legs, then charge and “clash horns” with a loud bang that’s been compared to that of a baseball bat slammed into a barn door. Adult females, too, will sometimes knock heads, apparently to determine social rankings.

Ewes produce a single lamb in late May or early June. As the birth approaches, a pregnant ewe will go off by herself and head for steep, rugged terrain where predators are less likely to be. Lambs usually do fine their first summer, when food is abundant, but half or more may die their first winter, depending on the season’s severity. Sheep that survive their first couple of winters may live to between 12 and 15 years. Mature rams in their prime may weigh 200 pounds or more, ewes 110 to 130 pounds on average.

Both sexes of adult sheep have horns, though only males grow the large, sweeping, and outward-curling horns so often seen in photos. As rams mature, their horns gradually form a circle when viewed from the side and reach a full circle or “curl” in seven to eight years. The amber-colored horns are male status symbols; large mature rams can sometimes be seen displaying their horns to other sheep as a sign of their dominance. Those of females are shorter, slender spikes that resemble the horns of mountain goats, which sometimes causes people to confuse the two species. But goat horns are shiny black and sharper than sheep horns and goats also have more massive chests. Besides that, their ranges rarely overlap.

Dall sheep are grazing animals that feed on a variety of plants, including grasses, sedges, willows and herbaceous plants; in winter they survive on lichens, moss and dried or frozen grass. They prefer to stay up high, in places that combine open alpine ridges and meadows with steep slopes, because their hill-climbing skills make it easier to escape predators in such sheer, rugged, mountainous terrain.

Aside from humans, wolves are the most efficient predators of sheep, but grizzlies, coyotes, lynx and wolverines sometimes successfully hunt the species, and golden eagles may prey on young lambs.

Over the years, I have written frequently about my love for Chugach State Park and particularly its front range, which borders Anchorage and is my favorite year-round place to immerse myself in wild nature. Dall sheep are among the reasons this place has become — and remains — so special to me.

Nowadays, when I venture into the Chugach Mountains, I carry only a point-and-shoot digital camera — my iPhone — and I’m accompanied by a canine companion. So when I watch Dall sheep, it’s from afar. But it’s enough for me now to see them at a distance, to know that we’re sharing the landscape. What a privilege it is, to so easily visit their alpine homelands.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

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