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Ram's death puzzles hikers, game experts

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: May 16, 2003) Over the 30 years of climbing that took Jim Sayler to the summits of the 230 tallest peaks in Chugach State Park, he had never seen anything like this.

Coming down from Rainbow Peak, 18 miles south of Anchorage, with his wife, Kyle, Sayler almost stepped on a mature, big-horned Dall sheep ram. Sayler had been close to plenty of sheep before. One can hardly hike the state park at Anchorage's back door without seeing sheep.
But he had never been this close.

Then the late-April encounter grew truly unusual.

"The dog was barking,'' Sayler said, "and we're just sitting there, oblivious, just off the trail. It was obvious he (the sheep) knew we were there.''

The sheep's bizarre behavior made Sayler a little edgy, a good thing when any wildlife act abnormally, he admitted. But he and Kyle kept going down the trail until they were within less than 10 yards away.

"He's still sitting there,'' Sayler said. "We're wondering, 'What's with this?'

"He finally stands up, takes a step and falls over headfirst like a turtle going over on its back.''

Sayler couldn't believe it. Sheep are renowned for their mountain-scrambling ability, and seeing one tumble head first is rare.

"Our dog's going nuts,'' Sayler said. "The wife is going nuts.''

The sheep bounced down the slope and came to a stop when those spectacular full-curl horns got caught in the rocks.

Sayler wasn't sure what to do, but figured he should do what he could to help the sheep. So he hiked over to it.

"I just sort of touched it,'' he said. "It was fat, very well fed. It certainly wasn't dying of starvation.''

It also didn't seem particularly concerned about being touched by Sayler.

"He wasn't doing anything,'' Sayler said.

So the longtime Alaska hiker and climber decided he might as well try to free the sheep's horns. And he did.

"I got his horns free,'' Sayler said. "He stood up, and walked right off a cliff, which was like a 20-foot cliff to our left. It wasn't a run or anything; he just went where gravity was going to take him.''

Once more the sheep tumbled onto its back. Once more its horns caught in rock.

Only this time there wasn't much anyone could do.

"(His) full curl jammed in the rocks with his four feet waving in the air,'' Sayler said. "It was in about as hopeless a situation as could be.''

This time, the slope on which the sheep found itself stuck was steep. Sayler, an experienced climber, had trouble just getting to the animal.

"I managed to climb up to him,'' Sayler said. "I could touch his horns, but there was no way I could get him out of there. We had to leave him. There was nothing we could do.

"You felt sorry for the thing. I had a full curl in each hand. It looked OK. Just a little blood trickling out of his mouth was the only evidence there was any trouble there.''

Sayler reported the incident to state park officials. The sheep was dead when park rangers and Alaska Fish and Wildlife Protection troopers went to look for it. There were, rangers reported, no indication the death was anything but natural. The horns and cape were salvaged by troopers for sale at the state fur and wildlife auction.

"In hindsight,'' Sayler said, "I remember when we were hiking up there. Several eagles (were) circling overhead.''

He has seen eagles circling that way before over moose kills in the spring. Sayler said he thinks these eagles could have been circling, waiting for the sheep to die so they could feed.

"I'm betting we walked by him that morning and didn't see him,'' Sayler said. "(Maybe) we came down and disturbed him on his death bed."

Alaska Department Fish and Game area wildlife biologist Rick Sinnott aged the sheep based on horn growth, estimating the ram was at least 12 years old.

Rams have been known to live to 16 in the wild, but that is unusual. The state's "Wildlife Notebook Series'' says, "generally, a 12-year-old sheep is considered very old.''

Dall rams usually achieve full-curl growth in their horns after seven or eight years. From then on, their autumns are spent in head-slamming confrontations with other rams to determine which animals get to mate. Those collisions can kill, but usually the rams survive. However, they are invariably left weak heading into the deadliest time of the year for most Alaska wildlife -- winter.

"This wasn't a bad winter for sheep,'' Sinnott said, but he allowed that even in a good winter a sheep that starts off in bad shape can starve or become vulnerable to disease.

Sinnott isn't sure what happened to this animal. No necropsy was done. A physical examination determined the ram had several broken teeth.

The animal could also have been weakened from trying to avoid wolves that have been hunting in the area of Rainbow, McHugh Creek and Potter Valley this spring, Sinnott said.

Sayler said that a week earlier on McHugh Peak, only six miles to the northwest, he found the bones of a winter-killed sheep and a set of full-curl horns.

"It's really remarkable,'' he said. "You find a set (of horns) like that maybe once every 10 years, and then the following weekend, here I am holding a live set in my hands just a few miles away. It was one of the more incredible wildlife experience for my wife and I."
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