The Bighorn Sheep Who Was YouTube Famous
A story about an American icon, environmental displacement, and slob behavior by the human race
A sheep was dead.
A bighorn sheep.
Earlier in the day, in Wyoming’s Sinks Canyon, the workers at the state park had organized a fun run and bake sale to raise money to stuff and mount the sheep, so he could come home, either in a standing pose or a walking pose, life-size and lifelike, once and for all and forever. At the visitor center, a sign hung from the rail around the deck. BRING BAM BAM BACK! Down in the town of Lander, his disembodied horns and coarse, tanned hide remained ensconced in a taxidermy shop, waiting to be mounted.
Now, in the cooling dusk of a 2013 summer evening, surrounded by the vast, impossible beauty that can start to feel almost commonplace in this part of the country—to the left, the conifer-covered north-facing slope; to the right, wildflowers and clusters of boulders and great granite walls—a couple dozen mourners and spectators sat in small, cheap chairs made of metal. They watched a lengthy slide show set to melancholy music. They looked at a portrait of the sheep, his regal gaze fixed in a frame trimmed with a black canvas shroud. They listened to sheep experts say what they felt needed to be said at such an unusual event, this tutorial meets memorial.
“The animal actually perished, ceased to have a heartbeat, last winter,” said Stan Harter, a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish. “But in my opinion, he died in 2009, when we had to move him out of the park.”
“It’s disturbing, what has occurred…,” said Joe Hutto, a local naturalist and author. “I just never thought I’d see the day where the sheep weren’t here.”
Under the darkening sky, Suzan Moulton, the executive director of the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center, in Dubois, reminded the gathering how many sheep there once were, and how few there are now. She posed a blunt, compelling question.
“What is wilderness,” she asked, “without something like this?”
The sheep that people would come to call Bam Bam was the last of his herd. The last in Sinks Canyon. In 2013, an obituary ran in the state’s largest newspaper, in Casper. It called him an international star.
Based on the number of rings on his heavy curled horns, he was believed to be around seven years old. That means he was likely born in the spring of 2005, probably in the canyon, certainly high in the cliffs, somewhere hidden and hard to get to. His mother nuzzled him and nursed him, and he stretched his neck to drink her milk. She hurried to lick him dry, to lessen the scent of birth so attractive to opportunistic attackers.
Within his first hour on earth, his hooves hardened, the bottoms of his still knobby-kneed legs becoming something like tough, durable suction cups, appropriate for his treacherous, high-altitude habitat. For the first week or so, he stayed close to his mother, and then they joined a larger group of sheep known as a nursery band, a handful of ewes and their lambs.
Bighorns’ best defense from predators is their vision. They have binoculars for eyes and practically peripheral sweep—and the more eyes the better, letting them watch together for coyotes, mountain lions and bears, and hungry eagles circling in the sky, searching for chances to swoop down and grab lambs from the edges of cliffs.
The ancestors of this lamb and his mother evolved in the ice ages at the shifting bases of glaciers, spreading successfully around mountains from North America to Europe, from Africa to Asia, adapting and advancing, living in extreme heat or extreme cold, the species in this way lasting from the Pleistocene to what many scientists now are calling the Anthropocene—a wholly new epoch, in which we, humans, are the preeminent influencers of the planet and its changing ecosystems.
“A particularly durable ice age creature,” Valerius Geist called bighorns in his book Mountain Sheep: A Study in Behavior and Evolution. They are, and have been, he said, “survival artists.”
As spring turned to summer, the lamb and his mother and the rest of the ewes and their offspring followed the snow line up the mountain, even higher, where the brief seasonal melt leaves the land rich, spongy, and lush, an alpine pasture verdant with nourishing grasses and forbs. He added this vegetation to the diet of his mother’s milk by the time he was a few weeks old.
His kind, at least when healthy and fit, is playful and gregarious. It starts almost immediately. The lambs of bighorn sheep run and jump and twist. They push against each other. They butt heads. They stand atop rocks and play king of the hill. It isn’t just for fun. The game hones dexterity. And it begins to establish where each lamb stands within the herd. The identity of a bighorn sheep, especially a bighorn ram, depends on where it ranks in relation to those around it. They never stop playing king of the hill.
By the beginning of the winter, the first of his life, the sheep who would be Bam Bam had grown to roughly 80 pounds and was almost as tall as his mother. Furious subzero weather chased the nursery band back down to valleys and lower sides of slopes, where the lambs learned how to use their hooves to paw through the windswept snow to get at what was left to eat.
For people, part of the appeal of the wilderness of the American West is the perspective it elicits: trip and fall in some snow, in 20 below, and you could be dead in half an hour. Animals don’t need this reminder. Certainly not sheep. The specter of starvation always looms in winters. Existence is extraordinary happenstance, and survival is a desperate effort, a mixture of undeniable vigor and remarkable luck. It’s a fight that never ends, until it does.
Starting in 2000, some 70 miles from Sinks Canyon, a handful of smart, serious men had studied the sheep in a part of the Wind River Range called Middle Mountain. They collected fecal samples, tracked radio-collared ewes, monitored the chemical makeup of the precipitation and therefore the plants and the soil. And they watched the sheep. They saw undersized lambs with patchy coats and swollen, watery eyes. They saw some so sick they crawled on their knees to their mothers. They heard chronic coughs.
Over in Sinks Canyon, the workers at the state park heard the hacking, too. It cut through the air and echoed off the rocks.
Joe Hutto, from the memorial, was one of the men on Middle Mountain. He wrote about his experience. “An obscure wave of sickness is quietly passing across the high and remote mountains of the Rocky Mountain West,” he noted in his book The Light in High Places.
A journalist from the Los Angeles Times arrived in Wyoming to report on the scientists’ findings, saying “profound environmental changes are beginning to ripple through the food chain and into the bodies of lambs.”
For these wild sheep, maybe more than ever, the odds against a first breath were phenomenal. The odds against the next were the same.
The so-called Sheep Eaters band of the Shoshone tribe used bighorns for everything—the meat for sustenance, the hides to make warm clothes, the horns for bows to shoot their arrows. They left behind rock art, ancient etchings, the depictions of the sheep featuring horns of exaggerated length. In bighorns they saw majesty and power, and in North America as it existed then—before white men, before gold, before Manifest Destiny, before unchecked hunting, before ranches and cattle and domestic sheep—the number of bighorns, some have estimated, approached two million. Maybe the population wasn’t quite that high. Probably. By the late 1950s, though, it was as low as 25,000. In Wyoming it was 2,000. These days, those numbers are up, to 80,000 and 6,700, respectively. That’s mainly because of successful human intervention—restoration efforts based in part on taking sheep from larger, healthier herds and transferring them to other areas, hoping they will flourish and reproduce. But these efforts also have been frustrating and puzzling. In some spots, the sheep do reasonably well. In others they don’t. They disappear.
In Sinks Canyon, in the 1980s, the transplanted herd hovered around 150. In the 1990s: more like 50. In the 2000s: the sheep that would be Bam Bam was one of only a handful of lambs.
In a few years, his baby teeth gone, he was the dominant male among the few sheep left in Sinks Canyon—a couple of rams, two or three ewes, and two or three lambs. His horns, their solid bands reflecting his increasing strength and age, had grown to the three-quarter curl that hunters covet.
His look was the look that has made his species iconic. Snapshots of bighorns have backdrops that—at no more than a glance—are identifiable as the West’s impenetrable wilds. The big sky. The snow on the sharp tips of peaks.
That sentiment persists. Suzan Moulton, the director of the national sheep center, called bighorns the real “rugged individualists” in a region filled with people who aspire to be exactly that. Joe Hutto described them to me as “this symbol of an absolute, inaccessible wilderness.” They live where humans don’t. Where humans wouldn’t. They do their best where we are not. But the unfortunate flip side of this inaccessibility is their surprising vulnerability. Bighorn sheep, some have said, are just a pair of lungs looking for a place to die. These muscular mammals, weighing up to 300 pounds, are unusually susceptible to the viruses that cause pneumonia—viruses that are latent in domestic sheep but almost always lethal to wild bighorns. And because bighorns are so social, if one of them catches it, pretty much all of them do.
If what’s getting bighorns at the base of the mountains are infected domestic sheep, what’s getting them at the top, of late, is what’s falling from the sky—rain made more acidic by fossil-fuel pollution. The measurements taken by the men on Middle Mountain showed dangerously low levels of selenium, a critical component of the bighorn diet, which strengthens their muscles and bolsters their ability to grapple with disease. “The chemical changes occurring in alpine soils today are radical and mind-numbing in their complexity and implications,” according to Hutto. He says the rain that high is so acidic it burns his eyes.
The acute sensitivity of the sheep makes them a species worth paying attention to, according to Kevin Hurley of the Wild Sheep Foundation, in Cody. If a bighorn herd can thrive in an area, it indicates that a lot of other species, like deer and elk, can thrive there, too. And the indication is that something is wrong. It’s hard to say precisely what, because there’s not just one thing. Domestic sheep, invasive animals, invasive plants, rule-breaking ATVs, wildfire suppression, interstate highways, acid rain, and massive water diversion—in aggregate, two letters, one word. Us.
So in 2008, in Sinks Canyon, state-park superintendent Darrel Trembly saw one lamb. Then he didn’t. And at some point, the canyon had just two sheep left. Two rams. They started coming down the slopes and moving closer to the road, to the parking lot, to the visitor center. It was hard not to notice them. One in particular. He had a habit of using his horns to butt car bumpers. They heard him.
The name stuck.
They named the other one, too, the moniker reflecting their respective ranks. The first sheep was Bam Bam. The second was Bam Bam’s Buddy. Bam Bam pushed Buddy around, not vice versa. Buddy ceded ground to Bam Bam, not the other way around. Bam Bam led, Buddy followed. They were seldom ever not together.
In 2009, though, after winter broke, once the snow melted, Buddy wasn’t around anymore. Maybe he wandered off. Probably he was dead. Bam Bam, though, was not, so Bam Bam lingered by the side of the road that sliced through the canyon, watching people ride past on their bikes, loitering by parked cars and trucks. He seemed interested in their shiny bumpers and doors. He butted at them halfheartedly. He clambered up the steps onto the deck of the visitor center and stood in front of the windows. He stared at his reflection.
Then in May, one late afternoon, a local man named Mark James drove his black Toyota 4Runner up the road in the canyon. He saw Bam Bam standing on the shoulder. The ram stood so still that for a second James thought he was a mounted, stuffed sheep. Then Bam Bam moved his head. James made a U-turn and drove back down to get a better look. Bam Bam watched him from the other side of the road. Bam Bam crossed the road and walked toward the 4Runner. James turned on his video camera. His girlfriend, sitting shotgun, talked to Bam Bam.
“Hi,” she said.
Bam Bam reared up from a standstill a few feet into the air. He reared up on his hind legs and came back down, his front hooves touching the asphalt. He bowed his head, showing the 4Runner the top of his three-quarter-curl horns. He lifted his head and turned it, showing the 4Runner one side of his horns, and then turned his head again, showing the 4Runner the other. He walked toward the vehicle, extending his horns toward the shiny bumper, touching it, tapping it. James backed up, revving the engine. Bam Bam closed the distance, touching, tapping. James backed up, revved the engine, and Bam Bam reared up and lowered his head and horns, this time giving the 4Runner’s left front bumper more than a tap.
The vehicle jolted.
The camera rolled.
It got dark and James went home. He posted a two-and-a-half-minute clip of the encounter on YouTube. He titled it “Bam Bam, the Bighorn Sheep Attacks Toyota 4Runner.” People clicked. People watched. They kept clicking and they kept watching—100 views, 1,000 views—and soon enough some in Sinks Canyon started to say Bam Bam was famous.
What’s that mean?
What’s it mean to be famous?
For a person, it means people know you, or think they do, even though they don’t. It means they saw you on a screen, and so now they want to see you for real.
And for a bighorn sheep?
Throughout the summer of 2009, May to June, July to August, Trembly and park worker Randy Wise watched Bam Bam. They watched him lounge in the handicapped spot. They watched him walk into the visitor center, look around, turn around, and walk back out.
One day they looked out the window of the visitor center, and in the parking lot a man, a father, had set his child, an infant, on Bam Bam’s back, and a woman, the mother, was taking pictures. They were laughing. Bam Bam didn’t seem to mind. Trembly hurried outside, approaching the man as calmly as he could.
“Sir,” he said. “This is a wild animal. You need to take your baby off the back of the bighorn. You need to give him some space.”
At other times, and often, they watched people feed him. Peanuts and candy bars. Potato chips and Doritos. Wise confronted these people, telling them, in tones as nice as he could muster, that feeding Bam Bam wasn’t helping him. A fed bear is a dead bear, or so goes the saying in these parts, and this was no different. “You’re killing him,” Wise told the people. “You’re killing this animal by giving him this food.”
Trembly and Wise and staffers from Wyoming Game and Fish tried to chase him off. They snapped plastic bags at him, hoping they would startle him up the hill, to the rocks of the south-facing slope, back to where he belonged. They even used firecrackers. Bam Bam scurried up. Waited for a bit. Ambled back down. Stan Harter from Game and Fish made a sign and posted it at the edge of the visitor center parking lot. BIGHORN SHEEP ARE WILD ANIMALS. DO NOT APPROACH. ATTACKS ARE POSSIBLE.
Meanwhile, on YouTube, people kept clicking, kept watching. Thousands became tens of thousands. Tens of thousands became hundreds of thousands. Viewers thought it was funny. The fact that this bighorn sheep was doing something they had never seen a bighorn sheep do should have been a signal that something wasn’t right. An indicator. But they didn’t know what they were watching. They didn’t know that Bam Bam was behaving the way he had to behave. That he was obligated by his evolutionary code to vie for dominance. The way he did when he was a week-old lamb, drinking his mother’s milk, watching for shadows of circling eagles, butting his brothers with the nascent nubs on the top of his head. Only now he was alone. There were no other rams. There were no other sheep. So he pushed on Mark James’s Toyota 4Runner. He butted at it. He had it on the run. He proudly showed his horns.
Trembly and Wise worried. Bam Bam, with his ice-age body and his hard, 30-pound horns, packed three times the strength of an NFL linebacker. He could crush a person’s chest or skull. Kill a child. Kill somebody elderly. Kill anybody.
A local nature photographer named Bill Briggs got to where he could sit close to Bam Bam, 25 feet away, and take pictures. He talked to him.
“What are you doing, big guy?”
One day, Bam Bam sat on his favorite flat-topped rock, not too far from the road, and Briggs watched a hyperactive college kid stop his car and get out. The kid bounded up the hill toward Bam Bam and then spotted Briggs.
“What is that thing?” the kid asked.
“Bighorn sheep,” Briggs said.
The kid walked closer.
“You might not want to do that.”
Bam Bam stood up. He lowered his head. He showed the kid his horns.
“You better move.”
Bam Bam reared up. Came down. The kid turned and raced back down the hill, all the way to his car.
“Way to go, Bam Bam,” Briggs said.
A different day, down the canyon at the home of a retired biology professor named Jack States, Bam Bam was eating the roses by the path to his front door. States called to him. Bam Bam looked up for a second and kept eating the flowers. He walked to the door and lowered his head. He put his nose on the screen. States worried the same way Trembly and Wise did. What could Bam Bam do? What would he do?
A few weeks later, a woman stood by the rail of a deck overlooking a fishpond. Bam Bam walked toward her, clickety-clack, hooves on planks of wood. The woman turned around. Bam Bam had her cornered. He walked closer. She held still. He lowered his head, showed the woman the top of his horns, and approached her. He touched his horns to her stomach, holding them there. Trembly saw what was happening and walked slowly over to Bam Bam and the woman, telling her he probably just wanted her to scratch his head. So she did. And Bam Bam backed off.
He couldn’t stay. He had to be taken from the canyon. That August, Game and Fish came to pick him up. They took him to a different part of the range some 20 miles away. “It was only a matter of time before someone got hurt,” Trembly told a newspaper reporter.
But Bam Bam found his way back. It took two weeks. He brought with him a ewe and a young ram. Those two left after a short while, though, and he was alone again.
Harter and others from Game and Fish returned to take him away for good. He was up a bit on the south-facing slope when they arrived. They tried to lure him with alfalfa pellets. Didn’t work. One of the Game and Fish guys crinkled a silver wrapper from a candy bar. Seeing that, Bam Bam trotted over to their horse trailer and into it. They drove him east, past sagebrush and billboards, past cattle and the wires and slats meant to hem them in, past the derricks extracting liquid cash from the ground, past the ridges lined with rotating dervishes harvesting wind, past red-rusted carcasses of antique cars and weather-worn bones of abandoned barns. In Rawlins, in a parking lot next to a McDonald’s, a man from Game and Fish put Bam Bam in a different trailer, driven by a different man, headed for a different place.
At Sybille Wildlife Research and Conservation Unit, four hours and some 250 miles from Sinks Canyon, Bam Bam had 500 fenced-in acres in which to roam with elk, bison, and two other bighorn rams. The other rams ventured up from the flatlands into the facility’s higher, rougher terrain. Early on, Bam Bam found a weak spot in the fence, slipping out. He started walking in a direction that suggested he was aiming for home. It took a tranquilizer dart to get him back. After his foiled escape attempt, he kept mostly to himself. He stayed by the fence. The fence was by the road. He butted gently at the posts, waiting for cars to stop. People came to see him, Bam Bam from YouTube. Matt Huizenga, the Sybille manager, would find in Bam Bam’s feed bin scraps of snacks. Chips. Licorice. Hamburger halves.
Wise, from Sinks Canyon, checked in every January by phone. He was afraid the people at Sybille might forget the people from Sinks. If Bam Bam were to die, he wanted to make sure they remembered that they wanted him back.
One evening in January 2013, a few days after Wise’s call, Huizenga heard from someone who had driven by. The person said a sheep at the far end of the pasture looked hurt or sick. Right around dark, down by a creek, Huizenga found Bam Bam, lying on his side, legs stretched out straight and stiff. He stared into space. He tried to get up, but he couldn’t. The next morning, Huizenga went back to the spot, and Bam Bam was still there, not just listless now but lifeless.
The necropsy concluded that Bam Bam was seven, several years short of what would have been a typical lifespan, and had died of reticulorumenitis and complications, including acidosis, dehydration, and electrolyte disturbances. In plain language, what killed Bam Bam wasn’t an eagle, or a coyote, or a bear or a mountain lion or a wolf, or pneumonia, or a winter storm finally too savagely cold, or even old age. What killed him were the peanuts and seeds found stuck in his rumen. What killed him was that he ate too much of too many things he shouldn’t have eaten. What killed him was what people fed him.
Bam Bam the bighorn ram.
YouTube celebrity. Monarch of the mountains. The last surviving sheep from the Sinks Canyon herd. Symbol of wilderness in the American West.
Dead of bloat.