Bighorn Sheep


From Yellowstone Wildlife: A Watchers Guide 
by Todd Wilkinson.

Heaven Dweller

Defining the niche of bighorn sheep in Yellowstone is an easy task. Finding a sheep near the roadside, however, is not. Bighorns are creatures of the heavens who covet isolated nooks and crags, where they can escape from predators. Few species are better suited to the mountains of Yellowstone, and no other species is so capable of navigating terrain at high altitudes. The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is tied inextricably to a kingdom of ceaseless winds and bitter cold. 

About 300 bighorns inhabit Yellowstone's northern range, with an unknown number present in the rest of the park's interior. By their appearance alone, bighorns signify ruggedness. Males (rams) are easily identified by the classic C-shaped curl of their horns, while females (ewes) sprout tiny finger of horn from the top of their skulls. So subtle are the spikes that bighorn ewes are frequently mistaken for goats. Nimble-footed and built with a low center of gravity, bighorns can scramble acros rock walls too steep for most predators and pursuing humans. They disappear in a blink only to reappear on another cliff, oblivious to the perilous footing. The bighorn is one of several members of the bovid family, which includes bison, mountain goats, and musk oxen. In modern times, though, only sheep and bison have been native to the park. The biggest threats to the survival of bighorn sheep are human disruption of habitat, predators, and disease. In 1981 and 1982, an epidemic of chlamydia, or pink-eye, swept through the park's bighorn population, leaving hundreds of sheep blinded. Many died as a result, though it appears that bighorn numbers have substantially recovered. 

Rams in Yellowstone are renowned for their fully developed horns, a prize coveted by sportsmen and poachers outside the park. In 1987 the state of Montana auctioned a bighorn sheep license. One hunter paid a record $109,000 for the privelege of shooting a ram in an area outside the park. Of course, hunting is not permitted within Yellowstone, but this has not deterred poachers, who enter Yellowstone illegally and kill bighorns that might qualify as trophy animals. Park visitors play a role in preventing the destruction of bighorns by reporting any suspicious activity to rangers. 

Bighorns choose spectacular places to graze, usually within 300 yeards of cliffs, and they also raise their young near such sites. Although highly social animals, bighorns usually separate into nursery bands of ewes, lambs, and subadults, while rams form groups among themselves. 


If there's any spot were you can almost count on seeing a bighorn sheep (no site affords 100 percent certainty), that location is along the slopes of Mt. Washburn. By late summer, motorists may observe bigorns clambering down the bouldered washes that drain toward the park highway over Dunraven Pass. Here's another promising route: Drive to the parking lot at Chittenden Road on the north side of Dunraven, or to the picnic area at Dunraven Pass, and walk to the manned fire lookout tower on the summit of Mt. Washburn. The sheep have a high tolerance for human hikers, and are readily seen. Remember to stay on the road or trail at all times. This high alpine environment is fragile, and damage to vegetation can be irreprable. 

There are other vantages. Armed with binoculars or spotting scopes, nature photographers often stake out the Tower Falls area near Junction Butte, and the 7,841-foot Mt. Evers. In spring, look for sheep perched on ledges above the highway. Ewes frequently congregate there to lamb before leading their brood in a westward migration to the backcountry around Electric Peak. Continue to the next page, Bison (Buffalo).

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