I thought that they were mountain goats, two adults and two babies. I wondered if they might be a family, not knowing the family structure of these ungulates. From my vantage point, on a higher cliff on the trail up Mt. Washburn (Yellowstone National Park), the animals won my heart. The babies shared their parents' boldness for walking on the edges of cliffs; however, they always made sure to keep within a leg's-length of mom. I saw a baby nurse. I zoomed in with my cameras, and clicked away. I lamented that mountain goats are not native to Yellowstone. I should not glorify or romanticize an exotic invader, no matter how majestic said animal might be, I had thought.
I put away my cameras and hiked the rest of the trail, to the fire lookout tower at the top. All of the tower except for the very top was open to the public. Inside the glass-windowed panoramic viewing room, there was a sign duct-taped to the wall. It showed a photo of a mountain goat and one of a female bighorn sheep. My subjects clearly belonged to the latter category. Female bighorn sheep can look suspiciously like mountain goats; I should have known better, having met a lady bighorn previously on a trek through the Grand Canyon.
Relieved that my animal friends had been vindicated, I ambled back downhill, and found the spot from which I had seen the wily ungulates. On the cliffs below, those bighorn sheep were still around! Evidently, these rock outcrops were lush with plants—comparatively speaking in the harsh tundra world of 10,000 feet! There were lichens of many colors, oranges and blacks, growing all over the rocks around me. And, where the sheep grazed, patches of grasses, almost fluorescent green in color, and maybe a quarter of an inch tall. Nonetheless, the bighorns munched on this sparse vegetation, a feast for them. The lambs took some nibbles from the plants, then returned, each to nurse from their respective mother. Back and forth the babies scurried, with the spastic energy of youth. It was charming to see these two mother sheep out together with their youngsters. Were the ewes sisters? Friends? Of the same herd in any case, and they liked to keep together, the fearless four. One of the moms rested, belly to the ground, evidently taking a break both from foraging and her lamb's frequent attention to the teat. Through the binoculars, I had a good view of those spooky eyes that sheep and goats have, the horizontal pupils, suggesting an alien intelligence within that elongate head. And since people are naturally acrophobic, the lifestyle of the bighorn sheep seems foreign and hard to imagine. Perhaps more amazing is how the sheep find sustenance on these barren mountains. Somehow, a tiny green stalk at a time, they find the energy to not only survive, but thrive. Lactation takes a great deal of energy—making milk for a baby requires the mother to give so much of her body and her self. And these sheep were able to do it, in the fiercest of lands. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) of Jurassic Park was right: “Life will find a way.”