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Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep of the Greater Yellowstone

Fighting Bighorn Rams, Miller Butt, National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Bighorn Rams battling for their right to have their way with the girls. Fighting Bighorn Rams, Miller Butt, National Elk Refuge, Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Trophy Bighorn Sheep Ram, Shoshone River Valley, Cody, Wyoming

Trophy Bighorn Sheep Ram, Shoshone River Valley, Cody, Wyoming

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep make their homes in the highest parts of the mountains, where people find it difficult to go and the Greater Yellowstone region is home to thousands. The grace and beauty of the Bighorn Sheep is a treasure to see if you are lucky enough to come across any. Their agility and grace in their steep and rocky home is a marvel to watch. Bighorns are considered to the most regal of all big game animals.

Native Americans and early settlers prized bighorn meat as the most enjoyable of All-American big-game menu choices. The Native Americans also used the horns to fashion ceremonial spoons and handles for their utensils. Horns have also been popular for many centuries as trophies for proud hunters.

Three Bighorn Rams, Yellowstone National Park

Three Bighorn Rams, Yellowstone National Park

The natural range of The Rocky Mountain Bighorn is from southern Canada to Colorado. During the summer they inhabit high elevation alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and foothill country, all near rugged, rocky cliffs and bluffs, allowing for quick escape from mountain lion, wolves or bears. In winter, Bighorn prefer south facing slopes from 3,000 to 6,000 foot elevation where annual snowfall is less and the sun and wind help clear off the slopes, because they cannot paw through deep snow to feed.

Bighorn Sheep weigh in-between 115 and 280 lbs. The Bighorn’s body is compact and muscular. Rams can be recognized by his massive curved horns. The horns curl back over the ears, down then up around the cheek. When a ram reaches 7 or 8 years of age, he can have a set of horns with a full curl and a spread of up to 33 inches. Ewes horns are smaller than the rams and never exceed half a curl. Most sheep live to over10 years old with a maximum of 20 years. Ewes are protective of their young for many months but in the spring yearlings are abandoned while the ewe is giving birth to her next lamb. Bighorn sheep find safety in numbers, as do most herd animals. Newborns are natural cliff climbers and are able to follow their mothers at a good pace over the rocky terrain after the first week after birth. Lambs are completely weaned by 4-6 months of age. Bighorns are primarily grazers, consuming grasses, sedges, and forbs, but it will take some browse when preferred food is scarce. Bighorns are active during the day, feeding anytime then lying down to chew their cud.

Bighorn Sheep Ram on top of cliff in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Bighorn Sheep Ram on top of cliff in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Bighorn have excellent eyesight, which aids in jumping and gaining footholds in the rock. They move up and down cliff faces with amazing ease using ledges sometimes only 2 inches wide for footholds as they bounce from ledge to ledge over spans as wide as 20 feet with all the abandon of an 8 year old on a trampoline. Their keen eyesight helps them watch other animals at distances of up to a mile away. Their soft cloven hooves are sharp-edged, elastic, and concave with hard outer rims, however, the two parts of the hoof do not move independently as does the mountain goat, so bighorns are not as agile as mountain goats on difficult terrain. Regardless, this hoof design is a huge asset in their vertical home.

Bighorn sheep are gregarious and may form herds of over 100 animals, but small groups of 8-10 are more common. Mature rams usually stay apart in bachelor herds separate from the ewes and lambs for most of the year until the rutt and breeding season. Rutting and breeding season is in the autumn and early winter; the lambs are born the following spring.

During the rut, rams engage in long, spectacular battles. Bighorn sheep are perhaps best known for this head-to-head combat between rams. The size of a ram’s horns is a sign of rank and the mass of the horns (as much as 30 pounds) is used as a weapon against his opponent as he smashes into him. In these battles, which may last for hours, two or more rams repeatedly charge at one another and fiercely crash their horns together at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. Rams do not defend territories but rather engage in battles over mating access to a particular ewe. Horn size and their ability to use them to their best advantage in battle determines male dominance. Typically, the male with the biggest horns wins. The largest horns on record were on the head of a bighorn ram killed in British Columbia. These horns measured 4 feet 3 inches along the front curve

Bighorn ewes usually do not breed until their second or third year in the wild. Due to competition, males do not usually mate until they are 7 years old, not because they don’t want to or can’t but because they are not yet tough enough to win the battles for a ewe.

Bighorn Sheep, Jackson Hole. This herd winters on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge right outside of the town of Jackson. They are very accessible in winter

Bighorn Sheep, Jackson Hole. This herd winters on Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge right outside of the town of Jackson. They are very accessible in winter

One of the most important success stories in wild game management has been the recovery of bighorn sheep populations. The unregulated hunting of the pioneer days and disease from the introduction of domestic livestock nearly wiped out wild sheep populations in North America. An all-time low of 9,000 bighorn sheep was reached in 1960.

The Whiskey Mountain bighorn herd is the largest concentration of Rocky Mountain bighorn Sheep in North America and has been instrumental in the recovery of sheep populations. Since 1941 the Whiskey Mountain herd has been the source of transplant sheep for re-establishment of Rocky Mountain Bighorns throughout Wyoming and five other western states. Today an impressive 70,000 Rocky Mountain Sheep are now thriving in the west. In 1990 and 1991 this herd was estimated at approximately 1,480 in 1990 animals. Since then though a significant die-off from a pneumonia outbreak has occurred and research shows coyote predation to be another major cause of mortality in Whiskey Mountain bighorn sheep and other sheep herds throughout the west.

This high-profile bighorn herd attracts big game hunters and tourists and alike.  The Whisky Mountain bighorn sheep herd can be found south of Dubois Wyoming in the Wind River Range west of the Highway and the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center can be found in the town of Dubois.

Backlit bighorn sheep lamb in northwest Yellowstone by Gardiner Montana.

Backlit bighorn sheep lamb in northwest Yellowstone by Gardiner Montana.

Most early hunting expeditions were by pack train to the fabulous ram country in the highest reaches along the spine of the Rocky Mountains and today’s hunts remain quite the same. For many this remains part of the attraction to saddle up the horses and load up the packhorses and mules and setting out for sheep camp high in the mountains. Almost all sheep outfitting in the Greater Yellowstone region is done in this old time style, with packhorses and tent frame camps because this is still the most efficient way to get to the remote, high altitude home of the sheep. Many elk and deer outfitters provide hunting camps like this as well.

The Greater Yellowstone region is a stronghold of the bighorn and has gained a worldwide reputation for producing the some of the biggest Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep. There have been many fabulous rams harvested in the Greater Yellowstone area with a good number of them scoring over 200. Bighorn sheep are heavy horned and often broom (breaking the tips of the horns off to help vision). It is very difficult to find an old ram that reaches anywhere near 40 inches long after the loss of the lamb tips from brooming. However, most sheep hunters value a heavy horned old ram regardless of brooming as a fine trophy.

The Greater Yellowstone region bighorn sheep have always been a premier trophy for sportsmen from around the world. The sheep outfitting industry in this area has a long respected reputation as good producers of trophies for their clients.

Your trip into sheep country is going to be a memory of a lifetime so don’t forget your camera.

2 thoughts on “Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep of the Greater Yellowstone

  1. G. Colclough says:

    Captivating photography. What a spectacular eye!

    Question. Is the Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep photograph showing 3 Rams looking out over a rock outcrop print available?

    If so, what are the steps to take to obtain one.


    Glenn Colclough

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