A few bighorn rams grazing near the M on Mount Sentinel created excitement among those who saw them over the weekend. But when the sheep moved down to the University of Montana campus, social media caught up, creating a buzz.
For a while at least, the school’s new mascot was the Rams, not the Grizzlies.
“This time of year, a lot of these younger males start moving around and exploring,” said Morgan Valliant, conservation lands manager for the city of Missoula. “We’ve see a handful on Mount Jumbo every few years.”
After the 2008 fire on Mount Sentinel, a handful of bighorns spent the early summer grazing the regeneration. But Valliant said it’s uncommon to see the sheep on the valley floor.
During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, when much of the human world was shut in, wildlife moved from isolation into various cities. Mountain goats roamed the streets of Llandudno, Wales. Wild boars walked the roads in Sassari, Italy. Puma made an appearance in Santiago, Chile.
Even fish became visible in the canals of Venice.
“It makes sense that if there’s not a lot of people and a lot of dogs and they’re not getting harassed, they might seek that green grass and hit the valley floor,” Valliant said of the rams. “I’d imagine not having a lot of people on campus probably helps and they feel a little more comfortable.”
Valliant said the younger rams often wander the front-country hills around the Missoula Valley, though they typically move back into the higher terrain in early summer.
Other than extreme weather events, it’s rare to see them on the valley floor, let alone the UM campus.
“I remember when I was in college in ’96 and ’97, there were some on campus, but at that time the Mount Jumbo elk heard was down there because of the snow,” Valliant said.
Whatever the reason, be it youthful curiosity or the lack of students, Valliant said it was heartwarming to know the region’s native wildlife still occupied its native lands.
Over the past few decades, Missoula residents have invested heavily in preserving open space in and around the city. Seeing rams on city land, so close to the population center, speaks toward the investment resident have made over the years.
“As a community, we really embrace living with nature and preserving these natural areas close to town,” said Valliant. “They provide great habitat, great outdoor recreation opportunities and sometimes conflict. But the majority of times they don’t. It’s good for me to hear this kind of stuff – that we still have these critters using the land. Not every community has that opportunity.”