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Sheep not so steady

Fall near Seward Highway kills ram

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

By CRAIG MEDRED

An AP Alaska Member Exchange

ANCHORAGE -- Those seemingly sure-footed Dall sheep that regularly entertain tourists and commuters driving along the cliffs of the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood apparently aren't always that sure-footed.

Chugach State Park rangers said they were called to remove the carcass of one that fell to its death near Mile 107 on Nov. 8.

Chief park ranger Jerry Lewanski theorized that the young ram either slipped on loose rocks high on the mountainside above the highway or that some rock crumbled beneath its feet, precipitating the fall.

Such accidents are not all that uncommon, according to Alaska wildlife biologists, who have recorded many instances of sheep and mountain goats either falling to their deaths or getting carried to their deaths by avalanches.

Despite appearances, biologists say, the sheep really aren't much more mountain-capable than humans, and they lack the ability to protect themselves with climbing ropes when the terrain becomes deadly dangerous.

It is, however, uncommon for sheep to fall to their deaths right beside one of the state's busiest highways. Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Mike Opalka of Girdwood said this is only the second he can remember in the past five years.

''The (previous) one was a big, beautiful ram,'' Opalka said.

Lewanski said the latest carcass sparked quite a few calls to both park headquarters and the troopers. Opalka said he noticed the dead animal around 8 a.m., and called trooper dispatchers to find out they'd been hearing about it since 2:30 a.m.

Busy troopers passed the sheep-removal assignment on to rangers, though normally that would be the job of employees of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

''There were no Fish and Game people around,'' Lewanski said. ''So we were just requested to do something. We had to scramble to find a pickup that worked.''

Lewanski and park superintendent Al Meiners were discussing driving home to get the latter's truck when a park maintenance crew pulled into the Potter Section House headquarters and got drafted.

''They picked it up and threw it away,'' Lewanski said.

That is somewhat unusual. Most of Alaska's road kill is taken by charities for meat.

Troopers keep a callout list of groups to come clean up animals killed on or along the roadsides, but Lewanski said troopers opted not to call a charity in this case.

''You just don't know how long it's been there,'' Opalka said, noting that the last thing troopers would want is for some charity to get spoiled meat.

Lewanski wonders now if some of the meat of the animal might still have been salvageable, but he's mainly thankful the carcass wasn't a rotten, disintegrating mess as is often the case when rangers are called.

''We seem to get called when nobody wants it,'' he said. '''We've seen the most bizarre animals. One time we had this rotten moose caught in a tree.''

He believes that animal probably died from overwinter starvation, landed atop a tree buried under deep snow along Turnagain Arm and became a tree-bound carcass in the spring.

But, he added, it's possible that the moose, too, fell to its death.



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