By Easton Emith
“Bighorn Sheep- the Arid King (or queen) of charismatic megafauna (CMF) pull on our most tender bits; they draw us in and make us care. The only ‘clickbait’ that works on me is that with an animal picture. I know better, but how can I not watch the video to see what the elephant does next?
This is why polar bears have become so ubiquitous within the climate movement. Al Gore? He’s charismatic, but not quite ‘mega’. White-tailed deer? They are definitely ‘mega’ (Wikipedia defines megafauna: “In practice, the most common usage encountered in academic and popular writing describes land mammals roughly larger than a human that are not domesticated.”). But we tend to think of deer as pesky road-hazards rather than charismatic mascots. Meanwhile, polar bears are both ‘mega’ and ‘charismatic’: they look fierce as they charge, cute as they rear their adorable cubs, and absolutely helpless as they float alone on the melting ice caps.
Perhaps we should care as much about the effects of global warming on seabirds, or even algae. Perhaps we should, but likely we won’t. As skeptical as I am to attribute anything to ‘human nature,’ I do think there is some historical evidence to suggest humans have long felt an elevated sort of attachment to CMF.
If we consider a blog as simply a means to communicate ideas, then petroglyphs were some of the first blogs. And what do we find on them: selfies (handprints and human figures) and big mammals.
The panel in the picture above shows a string of bighorn sheep. Before colonizers from Europe came over, bringing disease and rabid, anti-ecological hunting practices, the sheep numbered as many as two million over the North American continent. Currently, estimates put that number well below 100,000 sheep. Still, bighorn are not considered an endangered species.
The bighorn pictured in the rock panel near Moab, Utah was probably a depiction of the subspecies o. c. nelsoni, which is one of the ‘desert’ bighorns. Along with the well-known, flashy horns that give these sheep their name, they have a charismatic personality to match. Animal Diversity notes, “Although not as well built for climbing as mountain goats, bighorn sheep zigzag up and down cliff faces with amazing ease. They use ledges only 2 inches wide for footholds and bounce from ledge to ledge over spans as wide as 20 feet. They can move over level ground at 30 miles per hour and scramble up mountain slopes at 15 mph. They also swim freely, despite their massive bulk and the weight of their horns.”
Even while this cliff-leaping megafauna isn’t ‘officially’ endangered, they are, like polar bears, particularly affected by climate change. A 2004 study from the University of California, Berkeley, “has linked population declines of California’s desert bighorn sheep with the effects of climate change…many of the state’s remaining bighorn populations could face extinction if certain global warming forecasts for the next 60 years come true.”
In the study, researchers found that “of the 80 groups of desert bighorn sheep known to have roamed California’s mountains over the past century, 30 are now extinct.” That’s a 37% extinction rate. These numbers could get much worse if we don’t mitigate the effects of climate change (by, notably, not pumping so many greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. Keep it in the ground!).
So, there it is: your charismatic megafauna for the Colorado Plateau! From the petroglyphs to this blog, humans have loved the bighorn sheep for millennia. Let’s do what we can to make sure they stick around for future generations to love as well (and, don’t get me wrong, I care about the algae and the coral and the now extinct golden toad too!).
Easton Smith is a Local Wasatch Front resident and writer. He spends his time community organizing, rock-climbing, and playin’ some mean banjo. For more writing from Easton, check out his organizing collective’s blog “Brine Waves” here or stay tuned for future loggings in River Currents.