Doug Boggan of Pollock had a few things in mind when he acquired a collection of bighorn sheep skulls and horns that was amassed by his friend, the late Johnny Carrey.
First and foremost, he wanted residents of the Gem State to have access to an invaluable piece of its natural history. He also wanted to honor the sheep that were once so abundant in the state’s Salmon River country. Lastly, he wanted people to know about and remember Carrey, a man with deep appreciation of the land, its people and the iconic species that remain cherished by hunters and wildlife lovers alike.
“It’s a really neat Idaho story that needs to be kept in Idaho. That was my main goal,” said Boggan.
But the collection has been far from Idaho for some time.
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Carrey, who died in 2002 at the age of 87, spent his life on the Salmon River and its steep breaks. He was born along the South Fork of the Salmon, and he and his family owned and worked a number of ranches up and down the main Salmon and its Middle Fork. Eventually he and his wife, Pearl, settled on Little White Bird Ridge near Pollock.
Carrey, who was well-liked throughout the Salmon River drainage, started collecting the skulls and horns of bighorn sheep. Soon word spread about his collection, and people starting helping him.
“Once people knew he was doing this, then people brought him horns,” Boggan said.
Carrey diligently recorded who found each head, where it came from and when it was picked up by writing the information on the skull. One was given to him by the famous recluse Buckskin Bill. The oldest dates to 1879. Nearly all of them are natural kills.
“He loved mountain sheep, and he said the old-timers regarded them as off-limits to hunting unless it was a real emergency,” said his friend, Cort Conley of Boise.
Conley co-authored three books with Carrey — “A Guide to the Middle Fork and the Sheepeater War,” “River of No Return” and “Snake River of Hells Canyon.” Ace Barton of Riggins also was a co-author of the Hells Canyon book.
Carrey also wrote “Salmon River Prose and Poetry” and co-authored “Sheepeater Indian Campaign” with three other writers.
When people brought him horns, Conley said Carrey would thank them by crafting things like belt buckles, pistol grips and knife handles out of the horns. Conley said Carrey made as many as 300 bighorn sheep belt buckles during his life.
“Everybody who has a belt buckle treasures them,” he said.
Over time, his collection grew to 78. Most were stored in his attic. Conley said after someone tried to break into Carrey’s house, likely to steal the collection, he decided to sell it. Boggan was present when Carrey agreed to sell both his ranch and the bighorn collection to Robert Senter. The businessman from Plaistow, N.H., was an avid bighorn hunter and purchased several ranches in the Riggins area. Boggan managed many of Senter’s ranches and eventually purchased one from his boss.
The collection was moved to Senter’s home in New Hampshire.
“I really hated to see them leave Idaho,” Boggan said. “I called my boss this winter — he is getting up there in years — and asked him what he was going to do with them horns.”
Eventually, Boggan and Senter struck a deal, and 38 of the horns were crated up and shipped to his ranch with financial assistance from Randy Orzalli, a sheep enthusiast from Sacramento, Calif. Idaho Fish and Game Conservation Officer George Fisher helped Boggan work through legal issues, and a group of Fish and Game biologists spent a day at Boggan’s place unpacking, documenting and pinning the horns.
Idaho regulations require the horns from wild sheep to be marked with a pin that identifies them as having been legally harvested or legally picked up.
“That way the collection can remain in Idaho and be legal, and Doug Boggan can do whatever he wants to do with it,” said Jim White, an Idaho Department of Fish and Game biologist at Lewiston.
White said handling the horns is one of the highlights of his 25-year career.
“I think it was pretty special for everybody to just open the lids and see what was actually in it and to see the different age classes,” he said. “It was kind of a window into the past. I had never held that many ram heads. Just professionally and personally to be able to touch something like that was pretty special for me.”
Boggan has several ideas of where the horns might eventually be displayed. For now they are locked away for safe keeping. He said they will likely make a trip to be displayed at the Wild Sheep Foundation’s annual convention in Reno. Then he wants to find a permanent place where the general public can admire them.
“The main thing is the horns need to be seen by the public,” he said.
Members of the Idaho Wild Sheep Foundation are working with Boggan to find an appropriate venue.
“Obviously, the objective is to try to get as many people as possible to see them while meeting the needs of the family,” said Jason Pyron, president of Idaho Wild Sheep.
Biologists hope the collection can teach them something about bighorn sheep. The once-abundant animals have been hammered from disease introduced by domestic sheep. Frances Cassirer, a wild sheep biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, said DNA samples taken from the skulls can paint a picture for researchers of how the bands of sheep up and down the Salmon River canyon once interacted.
“One thing we would like to know is: Is the population as genetically diverse now as it was then, or is it losing diversity over time?” she said. “We think there was probably more connectivity among bighorn sheep in Idaho historically, and it has become more fragmented and this might tell us if it’s had any effect on the genetics.”