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Counting Sheep

Counting Sheep chronicles the struggle for survival of the wild Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, a majestic emblem of American wilderness. Filmed over the course of 11 years, Counting Sheep is the first film ever of the Sierra bighorn, and it captures the plight of this noble creature -- one of the most endangered mammals of North America -- with dynamic interviews and exquisite footage. At the heart of the film lies the tenacity of the biologists and environmentalists who fight to conserve the bighorn in the face of disease, harsh winters and predation by mountain lions. At stake is the future of a species.

The two people most responsible for protecting the bighorn are unlikely allies: biologist John Wehausen, Ph.D., and mountain lion tracker Jeff Davis. Wehausen, who has an apparently inexhaustible supply of energy, is the godfather of the Sierra Nevada bighorn. He has studied bighorn sheep for decades, observing the elusive bighorns from the rocky ledges of the Sierra and collecting their bones and genotyping them. Wehausen worked tirelessly with the National Defense Resource Council to have the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep placed on the federal list of endangered wildlife and plants.

Davis, along with his wife Vicki, is a trapper turned mountain lion tracker. A modern-day frontiersman who spent much of his youth on the rodeo circuit, Davis tracks lions with hounds so that the lions can be radio-collared. Both Davis and his wife are passionate about the survival of the bighorn and are concerned about the natural legacy they will leave for their grandchildren.

The bighorn sheep live from 10,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level, on the snow-dusted crags of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains -- when seen from a distance in their natural habitat, they are said to look like rocks with legs. Once numbering in the thousands, prolific numbers of bighorn sheep died in the 1800s from disease transmitted by domestic sheep. By 1998, the number of Sierra Nevada bighorns had dropped to 100. The state of California's protection of mountain lions, which prey on the wild sheep, further complicates the efforts to save the bighorn. Then in 1999, the bighorn won federal emergency endangered species status, trumping the protection that California voters had given to the mountain lions.

Every mountain lion in the thousands of acres of the Sierra bighorn range is now collared and monitored, a heroic task. Davis must pull the trigger on those rare lions that can be shown to threaten bighorns. Removing lions stirs much conflict -- the public often does not understand the difference between animal rights and conservation.

Counting Sheep is a compelling portrait of an endangered species and the unusual collaboration between the scientists, trackers, ranchers and politicians who are working to ensure the bighorn's continued existence. The film raises thorny questions about animal rights and conservation, the importance of larger ecosystems, and the delicate quest for coexistence.

[Original air date: Sun, Apr 24, 2005]

This program is not currently scheduled for broadcast.

Filmmaker Profiles:

Frank Green

Read more about Frank Green, filmmaker of Counting Sheep.


Counting Sheep: Crew & Credits

Producer/Director: Frank Green
Editor: Gina Leibrecht
Writer: Paul Rauber
Director of Photography: Frank Green
Music: Robert Powell and Conrad Praetzel
Sound Design: Jim McKee
Animation: Richard Pepper
Narrator: Diane Baker

(In order of appearance)

John Wehausen, Ph.D.
Wildlife biologist who has given 30 years of his life to studying the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.

Jeff Davis
Gifted mountain lion tracker and modern-day frontiersman; former fur trapper who is now working to monitor any lions in the Eastern Sierra that threaten wild bighorns.

Vicki Davis
Can out-hunt, out-trap and out-track husband Jeff; is the heart and soul of the film.

Carolyn Tiernan, M.D.
Wife of Wehausen; is a world-class athlete, an emergency room physician and a musician; her eyes sparkle when she describes her husband's bone-collecting habits.

Lynn Sadler
Director of the Mountain Lion Foundation; a lobbyist and advocate for mountain lions and other wildlife; opposes the California Fish and Game Departments killing of mountain lions, even when done to protect endangered wild bighorns.

Becky Pierce, Ph.D.
Wildlife biologist and mountain lion researcher; Jeff Davis's boss and an expert handler of cougars; explains the difference between animal rights and conservation.

Vern Bleich, Ph.D.
Wildlife biologist and head of the California Fish and Game Department's Sierra Nevada Bighorn Recovery Project; is Pierce's boss; in a scene with Wehausen, discusses captive breeding and looks at a potential captive breeding site.

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