A Bighorn Sheep stands sentry on a hillside

A Bighorn Sheep stands sentry on a hillside. The width and length of the curl in the horns indicate this is a very old warrior. 

As a kid in the late 60s, my Father and I would fish the Poudre River, along Highway 14 out of Fort Collins. In the early evening we would continue down the road to Chambers Pass, to a cut-off near the summit. From this vantage point we would look for the sheep clinging to the cliff walls across the canyon.

Even with binoculars, the sheep were difficult to see. From the distance they appeared as brownish-white patches. With the poor quality of glass my father had, you were almost better off viewing them with the naked eye. Nevertheless, we would stand there watching these magnificent creatures until nightfall.

It is difficult to imagine another animal that defines Colorado better than the bighorn sheep. That is probably why the bighorn was designated the official state animal of Colorado in 1961.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, known scientifically as Ovis Canadenis, is one of four native sheep species found in North America, but the only one who lives in Colorado.

Bighorn earned their named from the massive curling horns that can reach over 50 inches in length. Once a male, called a ram, reaches 7 or 8 years of age, the horns make a complete curl.

Unlike the antlers of deer and elk, their horns are not shed annually. The horns grow throughout the sheep’s lifetime, growing in circumference and length. At maturity, a set of horns can weigh upwards of 30 pounds. That is a lot of headgear for an animal to carry around.

Bighorn sheep are a relatively social animal. Mature rams stay in bachelor groups for most of the year. Ewes, lambs, and young rams usually stay in another group, dubbed the nursery group. The rams leave this group around 3 years of age to head off with the older rams.

The rut brings the groups together, beginning in mid November, and continuing until the end of December. This is also when the annual migration takes place. During this time of year herds of up to 100 sheep can be seen together.

The ewe’s pregnancy will last 180 days, leading to the birth of one lamb. The lambs are born in May. It is during this time that sheep are the most vulnerable to humans and predators.

The bighorn are herbivores, gaining most of their energy from eating plants. During the summer months, sheep feed on the grass at elevations up to 14,000 feet. During the winter months the sheep will move to mountain pastures at much lower elevations and dine on woody shrubs and forbs to survive.

Bands of rams have a set social hierarchy that is determined by body and horn size. A fully mature ram will exceed 300 pounds in body weight. Dramatic head butting occurs between mature rams to determine leadership and dominance. Rams will charge each other at speeds exceeding 20 mph, crashing their heavy horned heads into each other.

Once the hierarchy is established, rams live in the same bachelor group with very little future conflict. The normal lifespan is 10 to 12 years but some rams as old as 15 have been documented.

Sheep come in many different shades of brown, depending on their home range. All sheep have a white underbelly, rump patch, and muzzle and eye patch. This white patch is what helps us locate them at a distance. Sheep have a very thick coat to keep them warm in the winter, but shed the coat during the summer months.

Sheep have a remarkable climbing ability. They can scale cliffs and canyon walls that we could only scale with the assistance of ropes and climbing gear. Because of the area they live, their natural predators, which include coyotes, wolves, bobcats, mountain lions and eagles, have a difficult time reaching them.

At the beginning of the 19th century, it was estimated there were somewhere between 1.5 and 2 million bighorn sheep across western North America. By the 1920’s, bighorns were eliminated from Washington, Oregon, Texas, North and South Dakota, Nebraska and Mexico.

During the 19th century, as Colorado was rapidly expanding it’s industrial development, our sheep populations began to suffer. Human encroachment, habitat loss and hunting all took a toll on the herd but new diseases had the greatest effect.

The domesticated sheep herds brought on the introduction of new diseases. Since domestic and bighorn sheep are in the same genus, diseases are easily transmitted between the two species. These diseases include scabies, foot rot, blue tongue and a score of others.

By the late 1800s, scabies and pneumophillic bacteria had killed hundreds of Colorado’s bighorn. In 1950, it was estimated that only 2200 bighorns still remained in Colorado, being the lowest population ever recorded.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW), formerly Division of Wildlife got involved in the mid 1950’s. CPW began reintroducing large herds into the mountains of central Colorado and adopted new management practices.

Because of the management efforts, the population of bighorns has rebounded and is doing well. Colorado now has 79 separate breeding herds and an estimated population of 7,040 sheep.

Colorado has the largest population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the United States. It was also estimated that half of the herds within the state were native, meaning that they were completely composed of sheep born in Colorado.

During the late spring and early summer, sheep can be seen near Blue Mesa Reservoir. We usually see them in the early morning hours, around sunrise, slipping to the water’s edge for a drink, before heading back up to the high country.

Let’s hope we don’t suffer any more drought conditions and keep plenty of water for the sheep in Blue Mesa. I enjoy watching the sheep, no matter how hard they are to spot. I hope their population does well and the mountain dweller won’t fall off the precipice. Besides, I have better binoculars now to watch them with, compared to the junk I had as a kid.

Mark Rackay is a columnist for the Montrose Daily Press and avid hunter who travels across North and South America in search of adventure and serves as a director for the Montrose County Sheriff’s Posse. For information about the posse call 970-252-4033 (leave a message) or email info@mcspi.org

For outdoors or survival related questions or comments, feel free to contact him directly at his email elkhunter77@bresnan.net

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