Friday, September 4, 2015

The Good Shepherd: Dr. John Wehausen

Dale Matson

 Dr. Wehausen

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (John 10:11b, NIV)

I have a previous article I wrote about the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation here.

John, the director of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Foundation, was scheduled to do a Mt. Langley unit herd count beginning the last day of August and had just finished the Olancha Peak herd count. He was kind enough to invite me along a month ago and I continued hiking/backpacking with the hope I would be able to endure the three-day effort. My goal for a few years now has been to photograph the endangered Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep. What better guide could I have hoped for than the man who heads the organization and has been involved with the restoration of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep for over 40 years?

This story is as much about John Wehausen as it is about the sheep for which this Renaissance man has made his life’s work. As an oboe player, he knows Brahms as well as bighorns.  It was his trained eyes and binoculars that found the “rocks with legs” that I photographed.

At age 66, he is as fit a man as I have been with. I was often lagging behind his brisk pace. He was patient outbound as we climbed up from the trailhead. He did most of the talking while I worked on breathing. “The people we select to work with us must be first and foremost mountain people. We can teach them everything else.”

The main limiting factor for our three-day basecamp was access to an adequate water source at this high an elevation. He found a one-inch flow of water and we made camp nearby at about 11,500’. We would partially fill a cup and pour it into a larger container, then filter the water. As we talked, our conversation filled in the details of a life John outlined in a dinner conversation in Bishop CA where he resides. The dinner group consisted of my wife Sharon, Virginia Chadwick and her husband, John and me.

John can be seen as a kind of wilderness visionary like Theodore Solomons or John Muir. We talked at length about Sierra mountain men like Norman Clyde and Orland Bartholomew.  I see John  as more of a St. Francis who heard the Voice of Christ from the cross. “Rebuild My Church”.  John is as much of a restorationist as he is a conservationist. As a graduate student at The University of Michigan he began this bighorn sheep restoration quest. Today, there are about 600 bighorn sheep in all the herd units scattered along the Sierra crest from Yosemite south to Olancha Peak. Now it is a matter of building each of the herds to sustainable critical mass. John has taken care to relocate sheep in a manner that avoids inbreeding. Their primary enemies are disease from domestic sheep and predation by mountain lions. Their primary defense is their extreme home range elevation and their excellent vision.
Like St. Francis, John is a minimalist, shunning the elaborate and ornate. He had a patch sewn into the back of his shirt reminding me once again of St. Francis. His well-worn ancient Dana Design backpack is filled with old stuff including a seasoned spotting scope encased in an old wool sock. He parked his nondescript sedan facing downhill on Horseshoe Meadows Road so he could jump-start it coasting down Horseshoe Meadows Road if the battery failed. His wilderness home is a Bibler Bivy Sack that is no longer made. John told me that “Bibler the man” lives in Bishop.

Our first day after we set up camp, we walked uphill a ways. Using his binoculars, John spotted a single sheep atop a pile of rocks and I got my first photograph of a bighorn sheep. I must admit that I had come to the mountains as a landscape not a wildlife photographer. My biggest lens was a 70-200mm Sony G e-mount lens. At two pounds, it was also my heaviest lens but I would have been better off with a 400mm plus lens. I would guestimate that we were never closer than half a mile to the sheep.

Our second day, we headed out about 10am and were out till 5pm. We were above 12,000’ much of the day and saw three different groups of sheep amounting to about 20 sheep in all. Bighorn sheep need very little water and get most of the water they consume through the plant material they eat. John is somewhat like his sheep. He drank a quart of water before we began our hike and nothing more till we returned to camp. He is almost as nimble also.

I was amazed how high my pulse was even resting at this elevation. My resting pulse is usually in the mid 40s but here, it was double that. My Ambit showed about one third less available oxygen at this altitude.

John offered me some of his homemade soup prepared from vegetables he grew in his garden. I was glad for the warming effect. At our base camp altitude, the cool air came before sundown. I returned a favor by lending him my fuel canister when his partially full canister unexpectedly ran out of fuel.

The view of Olancha Peak and the Cottonwood Lakes drainage was a wonderful setting for our basecamp. We were spared the smoke that filled the Owens Valley from the Rough Fire that began in Kings Canyon from a lightning strike. This is the largest wildfire in California history and at the time of this writing, is only 25% contained.

On the third day, I opted to rest, recover and walk around taking photographs while John left camp to coordinate the Langley Herd count by radio with other spotters located in and around Cottonwood Lakes. He located some additional sheep including a couple of rams. He returned about 2:30pm and we broke camp by 3pm. We headed back with the steepest descents helped by creating our own switchbacks. John was once again patient and waited for me when I began to lag behind. I believe the sheep taught him patience.
Click to Enlarge Photographs

 First Sighting

White Mountain Peak Center Background 14,252'
 Sheep Scat
Olancha Peak
Looking East At The Inyo Mountains
 John Spotting Sheep
 Sheep Territory
 John Surrounded By The Vastness 
 Sheep Territory

 Cottonwood Lakes Below Our Campsite

 Our Meager Water Source
 Cropped Photo Of Sheep

Smokey Sundown Over Mt. Whitney

I am still processing this experience as I reflect on the three days spent with John. His parting words were, “Let’s stay in touch”. Mine were, “God Bless from one shepherd to another.” Thanks again John.     


  1. Wow! What an adventure and what great pictures! Also what a wonderful opportunity to be there with such a great expert. Thanks for sharing these, Fr. Dale, and for introducing us to John!

  2. "At two pounds, it was also my heaviest lens but I would have been better off with a 400mm plus lens. I would guestimate that we were never closer than half a mile to the sheep." I traded in my Sony G 70-200 f4 lens for a Canon 100-400. The article is posted on September 10th.

  3. Incident: Rough Fire Wildfire
    Released: 10/9/2015
    Date Started: July 31, 2015 Cause: Lightning Size: 151,623 acres Containment: 95%
    Structures Destroyed: 4 Firefighter injuries to date: 12 Total Personnel: 153
    Fire Resources: 4 crews, 3 engines, 2 helicopters, 4 bulldozers, 8 water tenders
    FIRE SUMMARY: Cooler weather and wetting rain was received over parts of the fire last weekend, aiding firefighters with suppression efforts. Fire crews are continuing to patrol and mop-up areas within the perimeter of the fire. A Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) Team is nearly complete with their assessment of long-term threats to life, property, water quality and deteriorated ecosystems from further damage.