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Home > Blog > Wildlife of the Week > The Hardy Bighorn Sheep : Wildlife of the Week – 2022 Week 10

Posted: March 13, 2022

Our Wildlife of the Week – 2022 Week 10…

Meet the “Bighorn Sheep”!

(Ovis canadensis)
Bighorn Sheep, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park
Bighorn Sheep, Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National Park

Bighorn Sheep Physical Description

Males weigh approximately 262-280lbs (119-127kg) and females weigh approximately 117-201lbs (53-91kg). Rams typically measure 5ft 3in-5ft 11in (160-180cm) from head to tail, while ewes (a female sheep) are approximately 4ft 11in (150 cm).1

Bighorn sheep have double-layered skulls shored with struts of bone for battle protection. They also have a broad, massive tendon linking skull and spine to help the head pivot and recoil from blows. Horns may way as much as 31lbs (14kg), which is the weight of all the bones in a ram’s body.1

Ram and ewe bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park
Ram and ewe bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park

The horns of a female are much smaller and only slightly curved. The horns of a ram can tell much about him such as his age, health, and fighting history.1

The pelage (fur, hair, or wool of a mammal) is smooth and composed of an outer coat of brittle guard hairs and short, grey, crimped fleece underfur. The summer coat is a rich, glossy brown but it becomes quite faded by late winter.1

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Bighorn Sheep In Action

Bighorn Sheep - Headbutt in Glacier National Park
Bighorn Sheep – Headbutt in Glacier National Park

Although not as well built for climbing as mountain goats, bighorn sheep zigzag up and down cliff faces with amazing ease. They use ledges only 2 inches wide for footholds, and bounce from ledge to ledge over spans as wide as 20 feet. They can move over level ground at 30 miles per hour and scramble up mountain slopes at 15 mph. They also swim freely, despite their massive bulk and the weight of their horns.1

Most populations undergo seasonal movements, generally using larger upland areas in the summer and concentrating in sheltered valleys during the winter.1

Bighorn sheep are gregarious (living in flocks or loosely organized communities), sometimes gathering in herds of over 100 individuals, although small groups of 8 to 10 are more common. Mature males usually stay apart from females and young for most of the year in separate bachelor flocks. Young females generally remain in their mother’s group (led by an older ewe), but males depart when two to four years old and join a group of rams. Young sheep of both sexes learn migratory paths and suitable habitats from adults in the group.1

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Where to Spot Bighorn Sheep

Two bighorn sheep rams on cliff above Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park
Two bighorn sheep rams on cliff above Soda Butte Creek in Yellowstone National Park

Bighorn sheep inhabit alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and foothill country in proximity to rugged, rocky cliffs and bluffs. Bighorn sheep require drier slopes where the annual snowfall is less than about sixty inches a year, since they cannot paw through deep snow to feed. The winter range usually lies between 2,500-5,000 feet in elevation, while the summer range is between 6,000-8,500 feet.1

The Bighorn Sheep can be found in over 20 National Parks and many other National Park Service sites.2 Including:

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Bighorn Sheep Conservation Status

Bighorn Closeup in Profile in Yellowstone National Park
Bighorn Closeup in Profile in Yellowstone National Park

Native Americans and early settlers prized bighorn meat as the most palatable of American big-game species. Native Americans also used the horns to fashion large ceremonial spoons and handles for utensils. The horns have also been popular for many centuries as trophies. Bighorn sheep may serve as an attraction for ecotourism ventures in parts of western North America.1

Several populations may be threatened with eventual extinction, bighorn numbers are only one-tenth the population that existed when western settlers first began exploiting the Rockies. Their main threats are unregulated or illegal hunting, introduced diseases, competition from livestock, and continual human encroachment on their habitat.1

Only known photo of a Badlands bighorn.
Jim Hart from South Dakota, displays an Audubon Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis auduboni) shot on Sheep Mountain in 1903 by Charley Jones. (Only known photo of a Badlands bighorn.)

Before the year 1900, a subspecies known as Audubon’s bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis auduboni) roamed parts of western Nebraska, including the Pine Ridge of the northwestern part of the state and the Wildcat Hills in the area near Scotts Bluff.3

In fact, emigrant James Tolles wrote in the trail journal of his 1849 journey that “(Scotts Bluff) is near 600 ft in height; and we had much difficulty in ascending it, but was well repaid for our trouble, upon this rock we found pine trees, grass, and some very nice flowers. We saw upon this bluff over 50 mountain sheep.” Unfortunately, the Audubon’s subspecies of bighorns was likely reduced to extinction in the early 1900s due to disease, habitat loss and hunting.3

Bighorn sheep are incompatible with domestic sheep because they are susceptible to diseases of domestic livestock, including pneumonia, which is periodically responsible for large die-offs in bighorn sheep populations.1

Hunting has been prohibited or controlled since the early 1900’s, but much illegal poaching still occurs. Hunting for trophies is particularly damaging to the cohesiveness of bighorn groups because it eliminates the dominant, breeding males. Recovery of numbers has been slow for these animals and their future is threatened unless further conservation measures are implemented. California bighorn sheep (ovis canadensis californicus) are considered endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.1


Bighorn Sheep and You

Have you seen a Bighorn Sheep in it’s natural environment? Tell us about it in the comments below!

Do you have a picture of these amazing little creatures? Share it on social media with us and tag us in your post.

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#WildlifeOfTheWeek.


Interested in Wildlife Photography???
Check out this amazing beginners guide from National Geographic:
National Geographic Photo Basics The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide to Great Photography

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‘We got some of the above information from the following:
1: Animal Diversity Web – Ovis Canadensis – Bighorn Sheep
2: NPSpecies – Find Parks Where a Species is Found
3: NPS – Bighorn Sheep in Nebraska

Check out these recent posts from Discover Our Parks:

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