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Fauna Series No. 6








Life History





Fauna of the National Parks — No. 6
The Bighorn of Death Valley
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The importance of trails in the life of the bighorn is not yet fully understood because no specific study has been made of their use, but in the Death Valley region some facts are beginning to appear:

Trails connect one food supply with another and in many places one water supply with another, and when a spring dries up the presence or absence of long established trails to another source conceivably could make the difference between life and death. Evidence indicates a major role for the trail system in race propagation. During dry, hot weather the spring areas bear the brunt of rut activity, but during wet or cool rut weather the rams prowl the trails and intercept the ewes in passage from one area to another.

While bighorn have a remarkable ability for negotiating more or less perpendicular terrain, they seldom use this ability unless pressed, with the result that their trails almost always conform to contours and follow the easier routes. Since the trails are relatively level, they are also utilized as readymade bedding sites. Manmade trails and mine roads also are pressed into this extra transit service, and the resultant bedding sign becomes part of the record of bighorn population and movement. Many of the manmade trails also are connecting links between water supplies in remote areas, and so it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them and bighorn trails, except that they are usually about twice as wide. To walk on a bighorn trail, a man usually must place one foot more directly in front of the other than on manmade trails because bighorn trails averaged about 8 or 9 inches wide.

From the top of Echo Mountain, on the north side of Echo Canyon, the pattern of trails approaching Nevares Spring from the north can be seen, showing the main trail connecting Nevares with Indian Pass and becoming absorbed in the converging fan of trails as it approaches the Nevares area. These main, or connecting, trails we have called highway trails. This particular one contours the base of the Funerals, maintaining an average 1,000- to 1,500-foot elevation, and it is deep and dusty by the end of the rut-run in December.

On December 25, 1957, with Charles and Alice Hunt, we followed the Nevares highway trail north for several miles. It led past a spring that had been extinct, according to Geologist Hunt's calculations, since the late Pleistocene, or from 10,000 to 15,000 years. But the trail is still in use because the outcropping of travertine that marks the site of the dead spring happens to be en route to still living sources of water.

So, in addition to the part they play in the everyday life of the bighorn, trails are invaluable to the human observer as clues to the past as well as the present status of the species.

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Last Modified: Thurs, May 16 2002 10:00:00 pm PDT

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