A party for mottled sheep and high flying cranes

Faro Fannin sheep are worriers. "And if they stop eating and start worrying, that's a little bit of energy they don't have," said Yukon sheep and goat biologist Jean Carey.

Fannin sheep are worriers.

“And if they stop eating and start worrying, that’s a little bit of energy they don’t have,” said Yukon sheep and goat biologist Jean Carey.

One little disturbance can upset bacteria in the animal’s stomach. If things get dire, sheep have been known to run full tilt off mountainsides.

On Saturday afternoon, Faro’s Fannin sheep looked relaxed, despite the crowd of 50 enthusiasts there to watch them during the community’s sixth annual Crane and Sheep Viewing Festival.

The sheep, obviously, didn’t see the grizzly.

Lumbering toward them just a few hills over, the big bear was looking for lamb.

“Everybody loves lamb—grizzlies, eagles, wolves, coyotes,” said Carey.

“Eagles can knock a lamb off its feet.”

The group was heading to the mineral lick, on a dry bluff overlooking Blind Creek, which was in full flood.

There were sheep pellets everywhere—and some coyote scat, with sheep wool in it.

Sheep aren’t explorers, said Carey.

“They use well-worn trails and know how to get from A to B without surprises.”

But the Fannin sheep have had their fair share of surprises.

When the Faro lead-zinc mine opened in the 1960s, it took over their winter range.

“There were sheep walking right through the open pit,” she said.

Miners argued that sheep liked the heavy equipment.

“But maybe it wasn’t a love for heavy equipment that brought the sheep to the mine,” said Carey.

“Maybe, the range is so important they were willing to walk past the rock crushers to get there.”

The mine funded the first radio-collar study of Faro’s sheep.

Fannin sheeps’ dark colouration is unique, said Carey.

“They’re Dall sheep with a unique colour phase.”

Different glacial histories might account for the pockets of dark sheep, she said.

The Tintina Trench was glacier-free for a long time, “so it was better to be brown than white.”

Even in winter, the sheep feed on a south-facing slope, which high winds keep relatively snow-free.

Sheep are geared for the alpine, said Carey.

It offers a good view of predators and, to give birth, the ewes move into the most steep, rocky, out-of-the-way places.

“Being a sheep is a full-time job—you have to be vigilant.”

The cranes have it a little easier—they simply fly from Mexico to Siberia every year.

The cranes winter on the gulf coast, in the Chihuahaun Desert and southern states like Texas.

By March, the birds meet up on Nebraska’s Platte River and start heading north.

For the past week, more than 250,000 sandhill cranes flew over Faro on their way to summer nesting grounds.

More than 500 cranes at a time would kettle—swirling and gliding upwards, trying to find the wind currents. Using them, they can travel up to 750 kilometres a day.

Their exotic jungle calls brought everyone out, necks craning.

“It looks like calligraphy in the sky,” said one woman, as the cranes circled the packed campground.

“I was expecting a few flocks, but I wasn’t expecting swarms,” said Brent Liddle, who’d travelled from Haines Junction for the festival.

Another couple, from Holland, got off Condor’s first flight of the season and drove up to view the flocks of cranes and the sheep.

Flora and fauna talks, bird watching, a wild game barbecue and craft workshops rounded out the weekend.

“Faro has gone from a mining mecca to an eco-tourism destination,” said Liddle.

Contact Genesee Keevil at

gkeevil@yukon-news.com