Master Engineers: A Shoshone Sheep Trap by Ron Mamot

Part 1: Introduction

A herd of Rocky Mountain big horn sheep slowly graze their way up the grassy slope. As the herd of sheep nears the top approaching the tree line that marks the peak of the ridge preceding the next river drainage, something catches the lead sheep’s attention. Guiding the herd, it instinctively turns to retrace the route back down the slope. But something is not right there either. Humans appear both ahead and behind the herd. In a mad dash down the hill, the lead sheep directs the course of the herd toward the nearest trees. The sheep scramble over the logs and brush in their path. In their stampede over the obstacles, the sheep become entangled, and the hunters harvest several animals before the rest of the herd struggle over the logs, running to safety.

This remarkable hunt can easily be reconstructed as we walk up this same grassy slope today. The wide saddle across the top of this steep mountain has been crossed by numerous generations of wild sheep, seemingly oblivious to any change in their natural habitat. It has been over one hundred years since this sheep trap and other traps like it were used by the Mountain Shoshones or “Sheep-Eater” Indians. These skillfully designed traps were amazing efficient.

The dependency of the Mountain Shoshones on the big horn sheep make it imperative for them to know everything about the animal: its weaknesses and its strengths. They were well aware of the ancient routes the sheep continually traveled in this region. The Mountain Shoshones knew how leery the sheep were and what keen eyesight they possessed. With this knowledge, they designed elaborate driveways and built efficient traps to procure the sheep.

Part 2: The Long View

TRAP005aThe sheep trap shown here is located on a grassy pass between two river drainages. The Mountain Shoshones used the entire pass in constructing this driveway and trap. The outer wall, nearly a quarter of a mile in length, begins at the head of along, steep gully that provided a natural migration route over the mountain. The inner wall starts at the edge of a steep cliff on the opposite side of the same gully. (This wall, shown in the photo to the left crosses the center of the pass and continues up the slope.trap001b Made of logs, stones, and brush, the walls apparently were slanted inward to discourage mountain sheep, who are known for their ability to climb nearly any natural barrier, from climbing over the walls. The two walls were not designed to come together quickly; they purposefully funneled the animals into a somewhat circular enclosure high on the slope. The overall objective of these walls was probably not to contain the animals but to slowly direct their movement up the driveway toward the ambush point.




Part 3: The Ambush

TRAP002cAs a herd of sheep reached the top of this driveway, they were not far from the protection of trees and a steep slope off the other side of the mountain. At this point a small ambush structure, big enough to hide several people, was built. The sheep moved directly toward this structure on their natural route up the slope. (The accompanying photo shows the ambush structure and the actual trap on the slope below. Click here here for a larger version—31k.) With the sheep so close, the hunters needed only to stand up and be seen by the lead sheep, causing it to turn instinctively to flee. The wall located above the sheep would have been less inviting as a way to freedom than the route of the well-designed runway, leading straight down the slope. 

TRAP006cOther hunters were most likely hiding in the trees lining the driveway; they would force the sheep to take the pathway to the trap. From this point down the hill, the walls of the driveway quickly narrow until they are no more than six to eight feet apart. With the sheep running hard to get away, the wooden obstruction at the end of the runway would have been of little concern. The surefootedness of the sheep would have taken them easily up the wooden ramp. Once on top the ramp, the sheep would have tried to run over it, jump off the far end, and continue moving down the open slope.

Part 4: The Trap

TRAP003cMountain sheep are not tall animals, so the wooden ramp only needed to be constructed approximately five feet above the ground. Their speed and ability would have helped them negotiate a short structure, so the length of the trap was built fairly long. The top of the ramp held the key to the hunters’ success. It was constructed much like a cattle guard used by ranchers today. The logs were placed across the top in such a way that the animals, even though they might be able negotiate the first couple of logs, would likely lose their footing and fall between the logs, becoming high-centered. As quick and strong as mountain sheep are, the hunters probably had only a limited amount of time in which to reach the trap and use their spears, bows, and clubs to harvest several animals.

Part 5: Conclusions

The method of using traps by the Mountain Shoshones to secure meat was not fool proof. There were many factors that might well have prevented the trap from working. One factor was the wind. After hunters had been sitting in the ambush structure for hours, waiting for the sheep to graze their way up the driveway leading to the wooden ramp, a change in the direction of the breeze could give them away. The animals, warned of the hunters presence before they reached the top of the driveway, would quickly turn to flee in the opposite direction. Another factor in the method of trapping sheep in this well designed and skillfully built structure was that it only worked from a single direction. The herds traveling over this particular pass had to come up from the gully below to be enclosed within the walls of the structure. Sheep traveling from other directions would have naturally gone around the outside of the walls.

Even though this trap was not used every day, the people who built it knew the sheep continually used this pass. The hunters were aware that it was only a matter of time before another migrating herd would move up the steep gully, eventually appearing in front of the ambush structure. These hunts were consistently effective.

This particular trap is located in an area that was a wintering ground for both sheep and the Mountain Shoshones who followed their migration. Therefore, a sizable group of people may have been available to make such a large designed trap work efficiently. During the summer months when smaller groups lived and hunted together, other hunting strategies might well have been used.

Very likely only a couple of animals were harvested while the others fled to freedom. With small family groups, however, it did not take a great number of animals to provide meat and hides to sustain them until another hunt could be organized.

Game migrating from one drainage to another is probably the reason other sheep traps have been located in various parts of this region. The Mountain Shoshone most likely built traps and organized hunts wherever sheep migrated.

The elements are slowly reclaiming the several remaining traps in the area. Today, when we look at the remnants of a sheep trap, we may see what appears to be carelessly strewn logs and rocks, and the ramp may seem to be a pile of firewood. But the original structures were ingenious devices used by a resourceful people who were remarkable hunters.