The imperiled and rarely seen Red Desert Sheep. Southern Red desert, Wyoming. Oves rubrum deserti
Wyoming’s Red Desert, in the south-central part of the state is largely an empty place on most maps; high sagebrush desert that’s demarcated by I80, dividing the northern and southern halves. Anyone who’s traveled the interstate across Wyoming knows that you cross the Continental Divide twice, an oddity because the Great Divide Basin is rimmed by the great Divide; water doesn’t flow out of the self-contained basin. While photographing the southern Red Desert in the spring of 2009, I encountered a herd of the seldom seen, rare Red Desert sheep (RDS), a species that was released to the desert by Spanish conquistadors around 1400 A.D. The black sheep in this image is the most rare – of the roughly 2,000 sheep known to exist, biologists estimate that 20 are the black phase. The white sheep actually seem to surround the lone black sheep, using safety in numbers to protect the special member of the herd. RDS have evolved to graze almost entirely on Wyoming big sagebrush, the dominant plant in the ecosystem. Their primary threat is the mutton poacher, lonely cowboys joyriding on horseback and in Dodge pickups, taking potshots at a herd of these helpless creatures. It is said that Wyoming is where “men are men and sheep are nervous” a phrase that began because of the despicable poachers. One of the least charismatic of the Red Desert species, RDS don’t benefit from the support of advocacy groups or government agencies. They are the rogue sagebrush grazers, noble symbols of the old West, back when John Wayne and Henry Fonda ruled the silver cinema. In closing, Happy April Fool’s Day!