Challenge in the Heart of Winter - High in the Mountains of Northern Alaska, the Author Braves Bitter Cold to Observe an Annual Dall's Sheep Ritual

By Walker, Tom | National Wildlife, December-January 2000 | Go to article overview

Challenge in the Heart of Winter - High in the Mountains of Northern Alaska, the Author Braves Bitter Cold to Observe an Annual Dall's Sheep Ritual


Walker, Tom, National Wildlife


Early winter, Brooks Range, Alaska. North of the Arctic Circle, on the slopes of the mountains where the Dall's sheep live, the sun went down before Thanksgiving and will not rise again until early January. For about four hours each day, the range brightens with enough twilight to make the animals visible. But then the darkness returns.

The 45 Dall's sheep I am watching-rams, ewes and lambs-are gathered on a rocky cliff about a quarter mile away from where I am standing on the other side of the frozen Koyukuk River. This is breeding season and the sheep seem more interested in one another than the weather. In fact, they don't seem bothered at all by the minus-60-degree Fahrenheit chill factor or the fierce, howling wind. I, on the other hand, am miserable. Despite several layers of protective clothing, a down sleeping bag over my shoulders and a sheltered place to sit, the cold pierces through every pore of my skin. Clearly, my vigil will be brief.

I am drawn to the Brooks Range by curiosity, wanting to learn something about how these creatures behave in almost perpetual darkness. All four kinds of North America's mountain sheep are diurnal, usually exhibiting little nocturnal activity. The Brooks Range animals live further north than any other wild sheep in North America, and so I can't help but wonder what happens to them during the Arctic winter.

The Dall's sheep, named for nineteenth-century naturalist William H. Dall, is one of the world's 40 subspecies of mountain sheep and the only one that has an all-white coat. Despite that coat, however, the animal is not hard to find in winter; its tracks are visible in new snow.

For a long time, I thought that these sheep evolved with white coats for camouflage. But a retired sheep biologist, Lyman Nichols, told me that their color may be more important in summer for protection from nearly 24 hours of sunlight that hammers their treeless, alpine habitat. Unlike dark shades that absorb heat, the white coats reflect the sun away from the animals.

Both sexes have horns. Ram horns are massive and curling-reaching a length of almost 50 inches-while those of ewes are slender, short and pointed. In proportion to their body size, male wild sheep have the largest horns of all ruminants. During rutting season, which runs from early November to mid-December, their horn growth almost stops. This slight pause leaves behind an annual ring that chronicles a ram's age.

The dry, austere Brooks Range is excellent habitat for these animals. Of the 60,000 to 90,000 Dall's sheep that range throughout the mountains of northwestern Canada and Alaska, 15,000 live in this range. In this harsh environment, the demands placed on the animals by the wintry weather and minimal rations of grass, sedge stems, lichens, moss and other foods should be challenge enough without also undergoing the rigors of the rut. But timing is crucial. Lambing must occur in the spring at the onset of the brief plant growing season, which in the Arctic occurs in late May or early June. With fair weather coming so late, it's not surprising that these mountain sheep herds breed well after their southern cousins.

Entering the rut, Dall's sheep are heavy with fat and their bodies are covered with a dense coat. Millions of coarse, hollow hairs lock in body heat and insulate against the cold. In sharp contrast to summer, when the animals look sleek in their light coats, their marvelous winter pelage gives them a blocky, almost roly-poly appearance that makes them appear twice as heavy as their 200-pound weight.

All day, I notice through my spotting scope, the rams move from ewe to ewe in search of clues to breeding receptivity. By scent alone a ram can determine a ewe's readiness. Large rams follow certain ewes and attack lesser males that approach. Rams chase ewes, kick or feint head butts at one another and generally remain in near-constant motion. The lambs born the previous spring spend most of the day feeding and trying to stay out of the commotion. …

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