Clifton warns motorists: Don’t kill our bighorn sheep

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: A Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep stands next to a marquee as it grazes on the lawn of the old Clifton Train Station. It seems oblivious to traffic passing nearby on Clifton’s Coronado Blvd. The sheep have favorite grazing spots wherever there is green grass, including Veterans Park, the North Clifton RV Park, and the town’s other parks. Interestingly, the marquee advises motorists to be aware of the majestic creatures on the highway.

Majestic creatures most often killed by vehicles

By Walt Mares

CLIFTON – They are beautiful They are majestic. They are no doubt a rarity and are a spectacular sight. And sometimes they end up dead.  

They are Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep. The sheep are killed on the highway between Clifton and Morenci when they are hit by motor vehicles. As many as 200 have been reported as being killed over the past decade. That is why the town of Clifton posts a strong message of caution on its marquee at the Clifton Train Station. It is also why there are bright yellow signs along U.S. Highway 191 warning motorists that there are bighorns in the immediate area and to be on the lookout for them. 

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep huddle on a hillside in Morenci. The sheep’s color allows them to blend in well with the hills and among vegetation such as mesquite trees. Because they do blend in with the scenery, motorists are often not aware of their presence, especially when the sheep suddenly decide to cross the highway, U.S. 191, between Clifton and Morenci.

The Clifton message cautions motorists to drive carefully on the highway. While the speed limit sign throughout Clifton is 25 miles per hour, at the north end of town the limit rises to 45 mph, which does not seem to be a very high speed. It is rather fast considering that sheep blend in well with the hills and foliage along the road between Clifton and Morenci. The sheep sometimes seem to appear from nowhere because they are so well camouflaged by the background on either side of the highway. That makes it very difficult for motorists to stop their vehicles when a single sheep or a herd suddenly decide to cross the road.

An impact with vehicles as small as a compact car can prove deadly to a bighorn. No doubt there are occasions when a motorist is traveling faster than the posted 45 mph speed limit. Those who do follow the speed limit can attest to that fact when they are often passed by another vehicle whose driver apparently does not think twice about disobeying the speed limit signs. It is mostly during full daylight that sheep frequent the roadsides, but on occasion, they hang out there around sunrise or sunset. 

One website says bighorns came to the Clifton-Morenci are in the 1960s via the San Francisco River. However, no one can recall seeing the sheep here until the 1990s. The herd of bighorns constantly grows and sheep are captured to be relocated elsewhere in Arizona. It is done by the Arizona Game & Fish Department, with the use of a helicopter that drops a net to capture a sheep. It is quite a challenging task to do so. 

When they are captured, the sheep are examined to determine the status of the animal’s health. Radio collars are often placed on sheep so their whereabouts can be tracked, especially those that are relocated. 

Walt Mares Photo/Gila Herald: Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep find some grazing along a roadway as the giant Freeport McMoran copper mine looms in the background. The creatures and the mine co-exist. In fact, the mine is a haven for the sheep as it makes it easier for the sheep to be aware of predators such as mountain lions. The scene is near the Morenci Conoco store.

The sheep are a stirring sight when they are seen in Clifton and Morenci. Traffic can come to a standstill as people, while in their vehicles, attempt to photograph the sheep. Along U.S. 191, they are often seen grazing at Veterans Park or in front of the Clifton Train Station. The park has a rich grassy area and there is a small lawn in front of the station. 

Another favorite hangout for sheep is the North Clifton RV Park, a big part of which is in a spacious area and has thick grass. It is bordered by the San Francisco River, along whose banks rich foliage grows and can make for a good hideout in which the sheep can seemingly disappear. 

Because the park is frequented by bighorns it has attracted some mountain lions, which are the sheep’s main predator. A couple of incidents of a mountain lion’s presence at the park were reported in recent years. According to one report, a mountain casually strolled through the park early one morning during its apparent effort to find sheep.  

Walt Mares File Photo/Gila Herald: In this file photo, a Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep lies off U.S. Highway 191 near the Horseshoe Curve, Milepost 166, between Clifton and Morenci. The animal was so badly injured Clifton police officer Omar Negrete reluctantly dispatched it. In the photo are Negrete, in the blue uniform, assisting Greenlee County Animal Control officers Raymond Alva and Allen Sams ( in cowboy hat). In the past decade, about 200 of the sheep have been killed on that section of highway alone. In the background is part of Freeport McMoRan’s giant Morenci copper mine

Another report tells of how one night a man staying at the park had his small dog tied up with a chain outside of his RV. The man reportedly heard the dog barking and checked on it to quiet it down. The next thing the man heard was the dog yelping loudly with what passes for a dog’s scream. The man went out to check the dog and quiet it again. No such thing. A lion had the dog in its mouth and with it was the chain.  

In Morenci, which is about three miles as the crow flies from Clifton, the sheep are often seen along a steep hillside near the Conoco station and convenience store. There, too, is plenty of foliage for the sheep to feed on. There are mesquite trees on the steep hillsides that can provide cover in which the sheep can hide.

The sheep are sometimes seen on the lawns of private homes. Yet another major hangout and hideout for the sheep around Morenci is the giant Freeport McMoRan open-pit copper mine. It is barren of vegetation and that makes it all the easier for sheep to be aware of predators such as mountain lions.  

The sheep’s existence in the mine is pointed to as a good example of coexistence with wildlife and the mine, which is the largest open-pit copper mine in North America. The bighorns have also become a calling card by the town and its visitors center. The sheep are indeed of interest to many visitors. Hopefully, they and local folks will slow down on the road between Clifton and Morenci.