Friday, July 13, 2018

Bighorn Sheep

If your characters lived anywhere near the Rocky Mountains, they would have encountered the Bighorn Sheep. Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) are the largest wild sheep in North America. Males, or rams, can weigh over 300 pounds and stand over three feet tall at the shoulder, while females, or ewes, are roughly half this size.

Bighorn sheep are grayish brown to dark brown with white patches on their rump, muzzle, and the backs of their legs. They have fur rather than the thick wool present in domesticated sheep. In the Winter they grow a thick, double-layered coat that may be lighter in color. 

Wide-set eyes give the bighorn sheep a large angle of vision. They also have sharp hearing and a keen sense of smell. This means a bighorn sheep can sense danger at a long distance. They have specialized hooves and rough soles which provide a natural grip on the steep rocky slopes and ledges where they make their homes.

As the name suggests, the sheep grow true horns that they retain throughout their life. Rams have large horns that can weigh up to thirty pounds, which is the average weight of all the bones in the ram’s body. These horns tart curling around the ram’s face by the age of eight years and eventually forms a spiral. Ewes have smaller horns that only curve slightly, starting at around four years of age.

Bighorn sheep feed on lower elevation grasses, clovers and sedges in Spring and Summer, and browse on mountain shrubs in Fall and Winter. They have a complex, four-part stomach that allows them to gain nutrients from hard, dry forage. The sheep will eat large amounts of food very quickly, then retreat to the cliffs and ledges to thoroughly re-chew and digest the food away from any predators. In Spring and early Summer, they descend to lower elevations to eat tender grasses and eat the rich soil to obtain minerals not found at higher elevations. These minerals are essential in restoring nutrients depleted by lambing and by the poor Winter diet.

Bighorn sheep live in social groups, with the rams forming bachelor herds of two to five animals and the ewes and lambs forming another herd of up to fifteen. In the Winter, ewe herds will sometimes combine into mega-herds of up to 100 strong. Lambs are born in the Spring and can walk soon after birth. They nurse for about six months. Young rams will leave their mother’s herd between two to four years of age, while young ewes remain with the herd for life. They live around ten years in the wild.

Mating occurs in the Fall, when the rams rejoin the ewes and fight each other for dominance. They use their huge horns in this battle, with males actually ramming head-on to determine which is the stronger. The combatants rear up on their hind legs and pitch towards each other at speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. The resulting crash can be heard a mile away. The ritual is repeated until one ram gives up and walks away.

The history of the sheep is similar to that of the Native Americans who encountered our European ancestors. As ranchers and homesteaders began to move into the mountain valleys, they brought with them domestic sheep – and their diseases, to which the Bighorn Sheep had no natural immunity. They also fell victim to hunters, who received high pay for their prized meat and horns. By the mid-1880s and early 1900s, the population was declining rapidly, and continued to do so until the mid-20thCentury. Your character might notice the decline, or he or she might be among those causing it. Either way, it would be an interesting historic tidbit to include in a story.

J.E.S. Hays


  1. Ancient tribe of western Wyoming, called the Sheep-eaters, little or nothing left of their culture by the time of the first non-native people into the area.

  2. I love these majestic animals and have seen them many time, both low and high. Whenever I read a story that contains them, I smile. Thanks for the added information. Doris

  3. J.E.S.,

    I live in the far southeastern corner of Colorado at the edge of the Comanche National Grasslands, which is a good 150 miles from the Rocky Mountain foothills to the west. There is a herd of Bighorns that live/roam in the Grassland canyons and the adjoining privately owned lands. There are also Elk out here along the Cimarron River, which is south and east of the Grasslands. I've lived in this area for 28 years, and I've only seen the Bighorn herd twice. I've wondered about their 'story'.