— July 23, 2013
Bam Bam the bighorn sheep earned his name for occasionally ramming cars in Sinks Canyon. He rose to prominence thanks, in part, to YouTube.
Aside from potential damage to your car, it sounds kind of hilarious, right? But Bam Bam’s antics earned him exile to Wyoming Game and Fish’s Sybille Research and Conservation Education unit in 2009, where he, as the last living member of the Sinks Canyon herd, lived out the rest of the days before dying this summer.
In Wyoming, people stalk famous animals — Grizzly Bear No. 399 and her cubs in Grand Teton, ‘Scarface’ the grizzly in Yellowstone, and “Big Boy” the mule deer near the Gros Ventre River near Jackson — similar to the way visitors try to catch glimpses of movie stars in Los Angeles. The difference is the animals have no choice in garnering fame and they live by a different set of rules that can result in people, or themselves, getting injured or killed. While wildlife managers try to avoid anthropomorphizing animals, there are some that can’t escape the spotlight — and the good and bad that comes with it.
At a memorial service for Bam Bam Saturday, Stan Harter, a biologist with Wyoming Game and Fish wouldn’t even use the bighorn’s name. Naming wildlife makes the animal seem like a pet. “It’s the Yogi Bear syndrome,” he said. And regarding a wild animal as a pet rarely ends well. To Harter, the sheep died when it was sent to the research area in 2009.
Bam Bam became famous for head butting vehicles and was remembered when he died for eating Doritos and getting his head scratched by visitors — activities that break the basic rules of respecting wildlife. If it’s a carnivore that becomes acclimated to human presence — a mountain lion, bear, or wolf — it is removed immediately, Harter said. Instead, people were amused with Bam Bam the bighorn sheep. Yet even Bam Bam presented a danger. When bighorn sheep ram each other, they exert 2,500 pounds of force, which would be like being hit by a car going 20 to 40 mph. Bam Bam could have seriously injured or killed someone, according to Harter.
The problem is not the fame, but how people react to famous animals, said Bill Briggs, a photographer who spent several years photographing Bam Bam in Sinks Canyon.
Briggs felt he genuinely knew Bam Bam. The bighorn sheep acted aggressively to some people, but he never did toward Briggs. That’s because Briggs always respected him as a wild animal. He never fed him. He didn’t try to pet him.
“It’s almost like he wanted to be in the public eye,” Briggs said. “He’d actually offer me poses.”
His removal couldn’t have been prevented, said Wanda Crowe, who also photographed Bam Bam. He liked to be around the people. While she’s sad he was removed, she thinks the years he was in Sinks Canyon connected visitors to the place in a unique way. “While he was here, he gave people a chance to see something they’d never seen,” she said.
Bam Bam certainly got people interested in bighorn sheep and in Sinks Canyon. That can be one of the benefits of animal celebrity — people begin to care about issues they otherwise might have ignored.
Wyoming’s biggest wildlife celebrity is Bear No. 399 in Grand Teton National Park. She even has her own Facebook page. The female grizzly was captured in 2001 and given her research number: 399. But it wasn’t until 2006 when she emerged with her cubs, 610, 615, and 587, that she grew a fan base, said Jackie Skaggs, park spokeswoman.
People eagerly await 399’s emergence each spring to see if she survived, how she’s aged and if she has new cubs. 399 often spends time near the road, which likely contributes to the fervor around her and her cubs. People can easily find and see her. It made the news when 399’s daughter Bear No. 610, adopted one of 399’s new cubs in 2011. And again the family made the newspaper when 587 was killed for killing livestock.
Skaggs understands why people connect with certain animals.
“We have a tendency as humans to make an animal part of our family,” she said.
The investment and connection people feel toward the bears can be a good thing, Skaggs said.
“It brings an awareness and a personal connection people wouldn’t otherwise have if they are just seeing an animal for a fleeting moment while driving through the park,” she said.
It gets some people caring about conservation issues they might not otherwise bother to learn about, she said. People meticulously tracked a male and female wolf and the subsequent Teton Pack spotted near Grand Teton National Park in 1999. The interest in the animals added support for wolf reintroduction in the area, she said.
But there are challenges for wildlife managers when an animal reaches celebrity status. There’s the obvious; people start thinking they know an animal and get closer than they should. Already some visitors to the park think of the animals like zoo animals, Skaggs said.
“Don’t feel just because that animal tolerates your presence or humans in close proximity that they are not wild and not unpredictable,” she said. “You don’t know what might trigger them to assertive or aggressive.”
People also become obsessed with one animal. They simplify what is happening with the species by thinking one animal embodies everything happening in the whole population. There are up to 60 grizzly bears roaming at any time in Grand Teton National Park and hundreds in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Many animals gain notoriety at least in part because of their proximity to humans and now, in the age of social media, their 15 minutes last longer when they are captured on film.
Elk No. 10, which died this year in Yellowstone National Park, was often spotted in the Mamoth area, known for his yellow ear tag and a video of him fighting with another elk. Other animals become famous because of their distinctive look, like the albino mule deer that lived near Casper. After it died it was put on display at the Werner Wildlife Museum.
In 2011 Mark Gocke, a spokesman with Wyoming Game and Fish, finally saw what had become an infamous deer called “Big Boy” or “Big Buck” because of his massive and unusual rack. People gathered near the Gros Ventre River to just watch the deer when word came out he was in the area.
“It’s not that common there’s an animal that can command that kind of respect and notoriety,” Gocke said.
While there are dangers when an animal becomes popular, it likely helped Big Boy. Big Boy’s antlers were valuable, but also recognizable — so unique, in fact, that any poacher would have likely been caught trying to sell the antlers. The deer also almost always had people watching it. It would have been hard to secretly kill it.
“It had been photographed so many times and that created its own form of protection,” Gocke said.
It’s something distinctive that creates an animal’s fame, but sometimes people are drawn to animals just because they are wild.
Sandy Sisti, a photographer based in Cody remembers the first time she saw Scarface, a Yellowstone grizzly named for the mark on his face. Sisit says she rarely seems him — maybe only once a year — but she still feels connected to him. Seeing Scarface is special, but Sisit also happy to photograph other bears like Blaze, Raspberry and Circus Bear. She said sh understands animals are still animals, even if they have names.
“I love the bears, but I know the feeling is not reciprocated,” she said. “They don’t care about me. They are so cuddly and cute, yet they can kill you.”
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follower her on twitter @Kelsey_Dayton
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.