Introduction to Species:
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Bighorn Sheep frequently are seen in the mountainous areas where they share their home with two-legged interlopers in the Bighorn’s home.
Awe inspiring, majestic and incredible are words that come to mind when choosing adjectives to describe the Rocky Mountain Bighorn. With love on their mind and raging testosterone, rams hurl towards each other at over 20 miles per hour creating displays of determination to dominate the opponent by at the least giving each other massive migraines as horns collide with a resounding clash. The clashes occasionally last for up to 20 hours until the victor gets the spoils or in this case the ewe in whom he is trying to win the right to pass on his genes to the next generation. Now that is commitment!
By careful observation you might be able to locate a bighorns during the day, feeding morning, noon and evening, or lying down to chew their cud. In the evening they have specific bedding areas which may have been used for decades.
Bighorn sheep typically travel in groups of 8 to 10 animals so if you see one sheep look for additional animals. Groups of up to 100 have been observed in the winter. Mature males form “gentlemen’s clubs” and separate themselves from younger males as well as ewes with young. In the winter sheep will concentrate in valleys that provide shelter from wind and predators. Bighorns prefer a winter elevation of 2,500-5,000 feet with an annual snowfall of less than 60 inches a year. Preferred summer range is between 6,000-8,500 feet in elevation.
Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep:
A Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram typically lives 9-12 years, while ewes usually live 10-14 years. Rams can weigh from 160-250 pounds and occasionally weigh up to 300 pounds. Ewes typically weigh 115-200 pounds.
Bighorn primarily eat grasses, shrubs, and forbs.
Bighorn rams will snort loudly during the rut. Vocalization for lambs consists of a bleat, and the ewes respond with a guttural "ba." Bighorns also vocalize with rumbles or "blow" an alarm call when threatened.
Acute eyesight aids in identifying predators from long distances. More than likely they will see you before you see them. Their eyesight enables them to safely navigate the rocky terrain that is their home.
After breeding season, which occurs in the North between October and January, a ewe gives birth to a single lamb or occasionally twins after a 5-6 month pregnancy. The lambs are born from late February to May and weigh between 8 – 10 pounds. Initially they will remain in steep terrain as a protection from predators. Within a few weeks of birth, lambs form bands of their own and find their mothers only when it is time for a meal. They are completely weaned by 4-6 months of age. Lambs learn about their home range from their mothers during the first year of life and then are abruptly asked to leave when the ewe gives birth to her next lamb.
Females will stay with the mothers group but males form groups with rams of similar ages.
Distribution:Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep can be found from Canada to Colorado. Its overall range has been reduced due to human development as well as disease and predation. Protection of habitat is essential to the continued vitality of this species.
Natural Predators:Bighorn find safety in numbers and are ever watchful for predators such as Mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles. Eagles have been known to prey upon lambs, but they are unable to kill adult bighorn. Predation is usually not a problem for healthy bighorn populations; however, when bighorn are suppressed by other factors, predation can limit recovery and potentially drive a population to extinction.
Threats from Mankind:In the 1800’s there were an estimated 1.5 and 2 million bighorns in North America. Today there are less than 70,000. By the beginning of the 20th century hunting, competition from livestock grazing, and diseases introduced by domestic livestock devastated bighorn populations.
Today, just as in the past, many activities have lead to threatening the Bighorn sheep such as grazing, mining, depletion of water holes and homesteading. Off-road vehicles, trespassing cattle, poaching in the 1960s and early '70s, drought, disease and Mountain Lion predation continue to push this species to the brink of annihilation.
An entire subspecies of bighorn sheep, the Audubon bighorn, which inhabited parts of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska was extinct by 1925. Through conservation efforts, many populations of Bighorn Sheep have been re-established through transplanting bighorn sheep from healthy populations to vacant habitat.
Conservation efforts are turning the tide but the species is still threatened across most of its range. Key issues that need to be addressed include habitat loss and fragmentation of winter and summer ranges.
For example consider the incredible conservation efforts to save a newly identified subspecies of Bighorn Sheep: “Recent genetic evidence indicates the Sierra Nevada Bighorn is a unique form of Bighorn found only in the Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada Bighorn are rarer than the Florida Panther, and rarer than the California Condor. They are clearly one of the most endangered mammals of North America. In 1986 these sheep were reintroduced to the Mono Basin from a population further to the south. Now the population in Lee Vining Canyon is the primary hope for the future of Sierra Nevada Bighorn.” Source: DesertUSA