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.