Shawn O’Brate

DUBOIS – With Dubois once being home to the largest wintering herd of rocky mountain bighorn sheep it’s hard to believe that there wasn’t always a place to learn and study these essential animals to the surrounding area. 

But 30 years ago the idea was formed to create a facility where kids and adults of all ages can learn about the gentle, amazing creatures that roam the mountains around Dubois and shortly after construction began after funding was found in a multitude of ways.

The goal of the National Bighorn Sheep Center is the conservation of the local habitat for the sheep, as well as the education of today’s youth about the importance of conservation, especially in times like today where the amount of bighorn sheep is dwindling.

“Many years ago when this was first envisioned by game and fish there were thousands of [bighorn sheep] here at the time, not hundreds, but thousands,” Patrick Neary, a longtime member of the board of directors said, “When the mill shut down it was really critical for us to have some sort of new economic development, so we were trying to convince game and fish to have more than just a little kiosk at the base of Whiskey Mountain, but to actually have an interpretive center here in town.”

It was that idea that sparked the creation of the Bighorn Sheep Center, and it was that idea that led to countless donors and inventive concepts to help get the building off the paper and onto the ground. 

“A lot of people came together, and a lot of agencies came together to help the town put this center together, raise the money and build it, and it was a real gem for the community to be able to put this together,” Neary continued.

Neary explained to guests and tourists that were visiting the center on Sunday that the land they were standing on was once for sale to the highest bidder, but through some pleading and some luck from government agencies the land would eventually go to the community-building center.

“We asked them to take the [for sale] sign down and wait until we could raise money and buy it,” Neary said about the land 30 years ago, “This town even voted to tax itself and we passed a bond issue in town to help raise the money, to help buy this land.”

“The Headwaters Arts Center was an old, derelict concrete square that was…owned by a local artist and she donated it to the town to be used as a match for the grant writing and the applications we were making with the state and other places. It was quite a community effort from lots of different sources, both private and public.”

In fact, there were over 75 different private donors at the beginning of the Bighorn Sheep Center’s existence, all of which helped make what stands in Dubois possible to visit today. 

That Sunday morning and afternoon was a fun-filled aura that surrounded the Bighorn Sheep Center with educational tours of the facility and the land around the area given for free while food, donated by Dubois’ SuperFoods, was being cooked outside for those that were celebrating with the employees of the center.

One of those employees is Dana Griffis, the director of operations for the past six months, who said she had never seen any Bighorn Sheep when she lived down in Florida, and that the experience of finally seeing one made her want to be even more of a conservationist than she was in the Sunshine State.

“Because we have this facility we try to focus on the educational part of conservation,” Griffis said, “it’s very very important to us that future generations know what we’re trying to do here…and when everybody knows about what we’re going through, with our pneumonia efforts, and any kind of land issues or habitat issues…educating people on that that don’t know anything about bighorn sheep is so important, because these aren’t everywhere and we’re just some of the lucky people to have them.”

The National Bighorn Sheep Center executive director, Sara Bridge, shared Griffis and Neary’s passion for conservation of the local wildlife, something she wants to share with more kids during their upcoming “Camp Bighorn” event where kids age 9-12 can camp in cabins outside of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park for four days and learn about field journaling, wildlife art, hiking, water ecology, fly-tying, wildlife management, and so much more.

“I would say Camp Bighorn is the biggest and best thing we do,” Bridge said, “we bring youth ages 9-12 out to the whiskey mountain conservation camp, it’s a game and fish camp, and we teach them about conservation outdoors and we give them their own experiences outdoors so they become lovers of everything we try and protect today.”

When traveling through the center in Dubois it’s obvious there’s much more than just some information about some hairy animals that live in the area. There is educational information on some of the oldest paintings in the state, even in the country, which are found on the mountain as well. There is also a large amount of information about the plant life and other wildlife that live on the Whiskey Mountain.

That’s what makes the Bighorn Sheep Center so important and interesting to those that travel through it:

“That’s what I love about this, it shows the local component to what we value in Dubois,” Bridge said with a huge smile, “I think it’s all of those pieces–a museum, a conservation effort, a teaching tool–but I think the biggest is it’s about how do we share what we love in Dubois with people in a responsible way. Even though we weren’t thinking about ecotours, or ethical tourism back then, we were just thinking about ‘how do we share what we love with people who are coming here to get a taste of that?’”

And according to Neary, who was in Dubois during the construction and envisioning of the Bighorn Sheep Center, this is identical to what the town had in mind when it was proposed.

“This is exactly what we designed all those years ago,” Neary said, “and they haven’t had enough money to update all the exhibits to make them electronic and interactive, so some of the exhibits are still fairly simple and fairly non-technical, which is not a bad thing.” 

To see what the center has turned into after almost 30 years in Dubois and almost 30 years of serving tourists, as well as the local communities, it’s important to remember that the center’s goal is never-changing:

“It’s about the conservation of wildlife and wildlands,” Neary explained, “because you have to have the wildlands to support the wildlife. And the wildlands are being stressed, and habitat fragmentation is one of the issues around here…Maintaining a high quality habitat for the sheep is really essential, that’s what Whiskey Basin and the center are about, keeping them here and keeping them healthy, although they’re struggling.”

“The story here is one about habitat and about human pressures,” Neary continued, “we’ve invaded their habitat…and Wind River is a very difficult, challenging habitat so many of these sheep go into their winter without enough fat, they could use more food, and more everything. This is a native species, [and] domestic sheep are an invasive species, they carry pathogens that these [bighorn] sheep are not immune to. That’s the primary source of the decline of these herds; there used to be over 2 million of these sheep out here when Lewis and Clark traveled through here…now there’s no bighorn sheep in the bighorn mountain anymore.”

At the end of the day the center raised over $7,000 which is an amazing achievement considering how much foot traffic can be felt throughout Dubois on a regular basis. But they’re not done fundraising. 

Nevermind their huge “Camp Bighorn” in August, the Bighorn Sheep Center will be hosting a fundraiser on July 13th with all proceeds being matched by Wyoming Gifts with the goal being to raise at least $15,000 so that the grand total can equal $30,000 or (hopefully) more.

If you have any questions or would like to help donate to the National Bighorn Sheep Center, or if you would like to inquire about Camp Bighorn, feel free to contact the center at (307)-455-3429.

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