Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are an iconic species of this mountain range and a symbol of its wild ruggedness. They are an endangered subspecies of bighorn sheep, genetically separate from the Desert bighorn sheep found in the White Mountains across the Owens Valley. Since becoming fully protected by state and federal laws in 1999, their small but healthy population has extended along the Sierra crest from Olancha Peak north to Yosemite National Park and as far west as the Great Western Divide. A lucky visitor may encounter this awe-inspiring animal during a visit to Pine Creek Canyon where they are well adapted to the steep, granitic environment. With sturdy legs, incredible balance and adhesive hooves, their climbing abilities and mountain fitness will put any eastside climber to shame!
The sheep in Pine Creek Canyon make up the Wheeler Ridge Herd Unit. With approximately 100 animals it is one of the largest herds in the population. The boundary of this herd unit extends from Mount Tom north to Rock Creek and from Wheeler Ridge west to Bear Lakes Basin. Pine Creek Canyon is the heart of this habitat; the steep granite cliffs we all love to climb allow bighorn to escape from predators and provide a safe place for ewes to birth and rear their lambs in the spring. The canyon acts as migration corridor linking the high elevation summer range with the low elevation winter range. During the hot summer months, sheep spend their time high on mountain slopes near the crest where you are unlikely to catch sight of them while in the canyon. As winter progresses in the Sierra, bighorn move down to lower elevation where the weather is less extreme and forage is more plentiful. This elevational migration is necessary for bighorn to acquire the nutrition they need to survive and thrive.
Climbing in Pine Creek canyon provides the unique occasion to view Sierra bighorn. We encourage you to bring a pair of binoculars to keep an eye out for them; however, it is important for us to remember that they are the locals at this crag. It is our obligation as responsible climbers to respect them and their habitat. While there are currently no restrictions on climbing in bighorn habitat, climbers should maintain good ethics and mindfulness in order to protect future climbing access in Pine Creek Canyon.
Good climbing stewardship is paramount to reducing our impact on the Wheeler herd. Please keep adequate distance to avoid spooking them. If a sheep is reacting to your presence—you’re too close. Do your best to limit loud noises that could echo through the canyon, and maintain full control of your pets at all times. And finally, between mid-April and June, please make an attempt to avoid climbing in or around sensitive lambing areas on the 1.5 miles of cliff line between Pratt’s Crack gulley and the Mill.
Climbers and bighorn share a love of steep and airy precipices. A symbiotic relationship is possible; we can continue to explore Pine Creek’s granite lines while bighorn migrate seasonally, birth their lambs and thrive. This simply requires that we do our diligence as responsible climbers to respect these endangered animals because these high-ranking mountaineers deserve our reverence and admiration.
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