The Stillwater mine doesn’t seem like bighorn sheep habitat.
The hills around it do; the Beartooth Mountains are home to both the native, curly horned brown sheep and introduced snow-white mountain goats.
But a mining base, located a few miles south of the Woodbine Campground along the Stillwater River and Highway 419, is full of trucks, lights and clanging of all sorts.
And yet the sheep are frequently found in winter months along the road near the mine, even along a slope wedged between two roads and a parking lot.
The sheep are, when in the right mood, also unperturbed by the army of Subarus and camera-wielding passengers aiming for the trailhead. If winter is messing with your wildlife viewing fix, this area is just the ticket.
The co-existence doesn’t happen by accident. The mine and the Northern Plains Resource Council, a Billings-based environmental advocacy group, carved out provisions for the sheep in a “good neighbor” agreement.
About 5,000 bighorn sheep live in Montana, according to state wildlife officials. Their range encompassed a large swath of the western part of the state, with populations nudging into southeast Montana along mountain corridors and with a pair of island populations in the Missouri Breaks and east of Miles City.
The upper Stillwater River has long been winter grounds for the relatively small herd that owns this slice of the Beartooths.
Take the general wildlife viewing precautions; don’t get too close, don’t feed them, and for fluff’s sake don’t pick one up and put it in your car if it looks cold. The sheep can be particularly defensive during the rut, which runs from about October to January. Attacks on humans or vehicles are documented but rare.
The road is generally plowed to the mine in the winter, and was still clear to the trailhead during the third week of December. Winter hikers, snowshoers and cross county skiers can travel as far as their desire, fitness and snow-covered trail finding skills allow down the 26 mile Stillwater Trail. Most sane folks will turn around after reaching the scenic Sioux Charley meadow in about three miles.
Those looking for a shorter trip can park at the Woodbine Campground gate and stroll to the Woodbine Falls Trail in the southern part of the campground, which winds for about a mile uphill to great views of the namesake waterfall.