Swerve Magazine, May 22: The world-record bighorn sheep wowed hunters and conservationists. But to the biologist who had studied it since it was a lamb, the animal was much more than a trophy,
On the night of January 19, 2010, a vehicle on Highway 940 west of Longview struck a bighorn sheep. The rancher who found the dead animal the next morning applied to the provincial government to keep its massive horns. He also reported them to the Boone and Crockett Club, a wildlife conservation organization in Missoula, Mont. that keeps official records of North American big-game trophies.
Last March, a team from Boone and Crockett travelled to Red Deer to assess the horns, which were on display at the Wild Sheep Alberta Convention. The right horn measured 45 and 6/8 inches; the left was one inch longer. These were the largest horns ever recorded for the species. The dead animal was now the world’s biggest ram.
But Kathreen Ruckstuhl knew the animal as 706. And she found him interesting for other reasons.
She met him in the fall of 1998, when he was just a few months old. At the time, Ruckstuhl, who was researching the behaviour and ecology of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep for her PhD, helped put a numbered orange tag in his left ear and a black one in his right. He was the 706th bighorn sheep to get two coloured tags.
“He didn’t stand out initially when he was a lamb,” Ruckstuhl, now an associate professor at the University of Calgary, says. But she does remember noticing his “dark, dark fur and these kinds of whirls in his fur.” 706 grew quite tall—tall enough that when he was about five, a grad student working with Ruckstuhl predicted the ram would one day be a champion. But the biologist wasn’t so sure. “I didn’t find anything that remarkable about him,” Ruckstuhl recalls.
Alberta’s bighorn sheep attract more than scientists to the province. Hunters from all over the world will pay $40,000, give or take, to hire a local outfitter to track a ram. “Sheep hunting is like the Everest of big-game hunting. It’s the pinnacle,” says Chad (Savage) Lenz, an outfitter in Central Alberta who has been guiding bow hunters for 20 years. The province issues 88 permits for non-residents, and divides them up among outfitters. (Residents buy about 2,300 licences a year, and kill about a tenth of that number.)
Lenz’s clients “save up for years and years” and come from as far away as Russia and France. Most of the hunters—80 per cent—come from the U.S to get their ram. But they only succeed about half the time. It’s a difficult hunt on horseback in the mountains for as long as 15 days. “You may be riding for at least a full day, sometimes two or three, and then, once you get back there, you set up camp and start hunting around and looking for the sheep,” Lenz says. “Sometimes you just don’t find them.”
But whether or not there’s a kill, Lenz says it’s a very rewarding experience. “You’re on top of the mountains in the most beautiful country in the world. It’s a great place to work,” he says. Lenz figures he’s helped “harvest” 100 rams over the years, animals he calls “the old men of the mountains.”
Hunters are only allowed to kill rams whose horns have a “four-fifths curl,” which mean they curl in front of the eyes. (Animals with horns of that size are generally four or five years old.) Lenz likes to take them when they’re even older: “I always say I’d like to harvest them a day before they’re going to die anyway.”
Alberta has about 11,000 bighorn sheep—roughly 7,000 on provincial land and about 4,000 in Waterton, Banff and Jasper national parks. The province has the right habitat, and the sheep have great genetics. “Alberta has always been a kind of mecca for big sheep. It is the place where rams are doing well,” says Justin Spring, assistant director of big-game records for Boone and Crockett.
Ruckstuhl came to Alberta in 1994 to study bighorn sheep, the province’s official animal. In the two decades since, she’s spent countless hours in Sheep River Provincial Park with binoculars, cameras and notepads, observing hundreds of animals.
Occasionally a sheep earns a nickname—there was one called Dino—but as soon as the animals are tagged, the scientists call them by their number. “You don’t give your study subjects a name because then you’re associating certain things with that name and you’re not unbiased anymore,” Ruckstuhl says. “Although I am very interested in social networks, you always have to be very careful that you don’t put much human thinking into it.”
When she was working on her PhD, Ruckstuhl was based at the University of Calgary’s R.B. Miller Research Station for eight months of the year. Bighorns were within easy walking distance. In the winter she’d wear a thick parka; during the summer’s long hot days, she’d spend up to 14 hours watching them. She always marvelled at the animals’ indifference to extreme weather.
When she first started watching sheep—standing back 150 metres or so—they would move away from her. But after a while they started moving toward her, curious about the strange beast in their midst. “Some came and sniffed at me,” Ruckstuhl says. “I didn’t move because I didn’t want to interfere with their behaviour in terms of them getting too used to me. I just waited, then they just kind of relaxed.” After a while when the sheep would see her, they’d just lift their head to acknowledge her before going about their business.
These days, Ruckstuhl doesn’t head out to the mountains as often as she did in graduate school. But her own grad students take a weekly census to determine which sheep are where. And Ruckstuhl still bundles up in her parka to head out during the rutting season, from November to the end of December.
During the rut, the dominant rams may stay close to a particular ewe, blocking other rams from getting close to her, or fight each other for females that are in estrus—ready to breed. If a ewe runs off, the males run after her, the younger ones trying to get her away from the dominant ram.
“They will try everything they possibly can to get that female,” Ruckstuhl says.“The big guy is a bit slower, he’s really heavy and strong but he’s not as fast as the younger ones. They chase her and as soon as they can mount they mount, even while running. They push her into a cliff, they sit on her. They do all kinds of things to get copulation.”
The males, famously, use their big horns to fight each other for dominance and the ewe. “When they do start rutting and banging heads, it’s pretty spectacular,” Lenz says. “You can hear that horn crack for a couple of miles.”
All that fighting takes a toll on the rams’ horns. “If they fight a lot there will be big missing chunks,” says Spring, of Boone and Crockett. “Montana has a lot of rams, and when you look at them they have huge chunks of horn missing. That just says there are a lot of rams in that area and the breeding competition is so heavy that these guys take a lot of damage in the course of a rut.”
But the record-breaking horns on 706 were in pretty good shape,which tells a different story. “He was the top of the pecking order. It doesn’t appear he did a lot of fighting,” says Spring. “He lived out his life fairly peacefully.”
Ruckstuhl says 706 became “number one” when he was about eight years old. But, unusually, he shared that dominant position with another ram, 310. “That was really fascinating to me because they had been buddies pretty much all their lives. They never fought each other, that was the funny thing.”
The two rams would go through the motions—walking parallel to each other, pushing each other with their horns, even getting up on their hind legs. “But instead of rushing forward to bang their horns together they just stood there,” Ruckstuhl says. “They never, ever crushed.” The two seemed to have worked out a deal when it came to the rut as well. 706 stayed at Sheep River and 310 moved to alpine areas to find females.
In 2008, poachers shot at 706, the bullet piercing his horn about an inch above his skull. The next week, the poachers shot another ram in the hind leg, badly injuring the animal’s tendon. The poachers were caught and convicted. The two injured rams, meanwhile, wandered off to new land, a private ranch south of their normal range. “706 was a bit weird after he was shot through the horn,” Ruckstuhl says. “By a bit weird I mean he was going into an area that he never went before and he got together with another injured animal.” 706 also behaved strangely during a rut, keeping his head down while courting a female, instead of keeping it level with his shoulders. Ruckstuhl wonders whether his horn was infected after the bullet ripped through it.
She says it’s a “mystery” how 706 knew about the ranch where he spent his last couple of years. Another mystery is why he went down to the highway to lick salt on the road that night. Typically that’s something sheep do during the day. 706 was known to wander down to the highway a couple of times a month. There’s even a picture of him licking salt off the road where he was hit.
After the collision, the almost 12-year-old ram managed to make it back to the ranch, where it was found dead the next morning. Ruckstuhl got the news about a week later. “I thought it was a pity, of course. I really liked him. Also, being such a great ram and then being driven over by a car, I thought it was a shame.” A couple weeks after he died, she went to the ranch to help take some initial measurements of 706’s skull and horns.
Five years later, experts from the Boone and Crockett Club convened at the Wild Sheep Foundation Alberta convention in Red Deer to measure the horns and to verify the record. (The delay was due in part to the horns needing to dry out and also to the red tape associated with taking trophies across the Canada-U.S. border.) Their measurements produced a score of 209 4/8 points, edging out the previous world champion, an Alberta ram that scored 208 3/8 points in 2000.
Chad Lenz was in Red Deer for the convention and lined up to marvel at the horns. You can hear the smile in his voice when he ponders what it would have been like to have taken the animal with a bow in the mountains. “That one would have been the ultimate. To see the world’s record harvested would be remarkable.”
For the Boone and Crockett Club, the record-breaking horns are a mark of good wildlife management. Seeing a new world record isn’t “our end game,” says Spring. “It’s very neat, it’s very interesting. But overall what we want to see is these mature rams coming from across the entire range.”
The biologist who watched 706 grow from a lamb with dark fur to a superior fighter, a co-dominant leader and a survivor of poachers, doesn’t care much about the world record. “The measurements don’t mean anything to me,” Ruckstuhl says. “They’re not interesting to me as a researcher.”
What does interest Ruckstuhl is how a sheep’s horns grow from year to year. Like tree rings, the patterns of an animal’s horn growth can provide a lot of information. Researchers track annual horn growth to monitor where the sheep was hanging out, what it was eating and how much it was fighting. Or, in the case of 706, how little he was fighting.
He was the boss for four seasons. He was so effective at intimidating younger rams that one year he was the only male around for the rut in Sheep River. So instead of having to fight off other males and copulate with as many ewes as he could to keep the other rams away, he spent the weeks of the rut just lounging around, eating or resting. He only mated a couple of times a day instead of a couple of dozen. “He might well have saved a lot of energy,” Ruckstuhl says. “Theoretically he could have put this into horn growth.”
Those record-setting horns are now in the hands of the man who found 706. As per provincial regulations, a metal plug with a registration number was drilled through the horns. They are still attached to the top part of the animal’s skull, and the trophy is bolted to a sturdy black pedestal.
But beyond a prized showpiece, the world’s biggest ram has left behind something even more valuable. “For me, 706 sticks out as having taught us about ‘friendship,’ coalitions and other social aspects of a ram’s life that were unknown to science,” Ruckstuhl says.
Meanwhile, she adds, another big ram has taken over the top spot and “sheep life goes on without him.”