East Vail flock of sheep shines in new documentary film

“Home For The Wild,” a mini-documentary about the East Vail bighorn sheep herd, shows how close the town is to the animals’ critical winter habitat.
Nick Junker/courtesy photo

Telling the story of the East Vail sheep herd in a video first felt like a quick thing, almost like a TV commercial. It quickly grew into something bigger.

The mini-documentary, “Home For The Wild”, was sponsored by the City of Vail and produced by Capture the Action Productions. Colorado Parks and Wildlife and the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society also had roles in the film.

State wildlife officers played a key role in the production, bringing Capture the Action cameras and drones to stunning backcountry areas as they chased tagged sheep.

Capture the Action’s Nick Junker said he or his partner Jeff Woods would get a call from wildlife officers Devin Duval and Ethan Kohn, drop everything and head backcountry.

In the months the video was created, Junker said he got up-close and personal footage when wildlife officers radio-collared bighorn sheep. Other shots required long lenses to spot bighorn sheep scurrying up steep rock faces. Other footage was captured via drones, being careful not to fly over Interstate 70 or private homes.

Some of these drone images show the highway and town as seen from the vantage point of the Bighorn Winter Range in East Vail.

Vail’s director of environmental sustainability, Kristen Bertuglia, said showing the closeness of the city and the habitat was part of the film’s purpose.

The film’s genesis actually dates back to early 2018 and a presentation on declining wildlife populations in Vail and the wider Eagle River Valley. The Vail bighorn sheep herd was a big part of this presentation.

What makes the East Vail herd special is the fact that it may be the last truly native herd in the state. The herd used its range in this region long before humans occupied the valley.

“We wanted to publicize this endemic herd,” Bertuglia said. “We want people to be inspired to protect (the animals), and how unique and special (the herd is),” she added.

Bertuglia noted that there’s a lot to be done for bighorn sheep conservation, especially since the animals won’t simply move to another location if moved. Keeping the herd intact – and perhaps increasing the herd from its current population of 50 to 60 animals – will take money, habitat improvement projects and, perhaps most importantly, people. observing trail closures and keeping their dogs leashed on the trails, she added.

Vail Mayor Kim Langmaid was among those leading efforts to preserve the herd. Langmaid said the film was “really well done” and praised the team that produced it.

Langmaid said she was glad the film included the dangers to wild bighorn sheep from domestic sheep. A bighorn ram wandering in a flock of domestic sheep can easily catch diseases to which wild sheep have no resistance, endangering other wild sheep.

Langmaid said the more she watched the East Vail bighorn sheep, the more impressed she was with their adaptation to the rugged terrain of their native habitat.

Because the herd has been in the area for so long, Langmaid said these animals have instinctive knowledge of the terrain.

“It’s amazing – the trails they made on the cliff, where they hide,” Langmaid said.

Langmaid and others encourage as many people as possible to see the film.

Bertuglia said the city’s websites and Facebook page had more than 4,200 views and the YouTube version had been viewed more than 1,300 times.

Junker said he learned a lot while making the film and hopes Capture the Action can do more wildlife-related work in the future.

“We’re talking about a moose video,” Junker said, adding that he’d love to be a part of protecting “the reason we’re all here.”