One of my favorite land-dwelling mammals in the U.S. (besides humans) is the bighorn sheep. In early June of 2011, I was in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and had the good fortune of close-up viewing in Horseshoe Park. That year it was still frigid and snowy in the mountain peaks so the sheep were grazing in this meadow at the mountain base. They are vegetarian and primarily eat grass. The management at this National Park take their bighorn sheep seriously–rangers that week were directing traffic near the main road so the sheep could graze in peace.
A member of the Bovidae family, wild sheep are primarily found in the western United States and Canada. Although they were widespread throughout the west 200 years ago, bighorn sheep are now in far fewer numbers. Like many of the spectacular wild mammals in our country, the bighorn sheep population was nearly obliterated by the early part of the 20th century. They were over-hunted and also killed by diseases. Fortunately the sheep were reintroduced and other conservation efforts were successful, rejuvenating the population.
Both genders have those crazy horns, but the rams (males) have more significant curvature. Older rams’ horns can eventually curve around into a circle! Besides being a fashion statement, the horns of the rams are important tools for the males’ battles for dominance. The rams commonly spar and posture and bash each others’ heads during the mating season. Their brains are protected by bony cores in the horns as well as large sinuses in the skull; but sometimes the rams are seriously, even fatally, hurt by the clashes.
A formidable creature, the males each weigh several hundred pounds and the Rocky Mountain subspecies, shown here, can even reach 500 pounds. Females are smaller. Females (also known as ewes) typically have one lamb, which is able to stand, run and climb soon after birth. This is a good thing because the lambs are easy predation especially to bears, wolves, cougars and others. The sheep, in their large herds, disappear up the mountain as soon as upper mountain grazing is available to avoid much of the predation.
If you happen to be in one of the national parks out west, take the time to look around for the wild sheep, ask at the visitor center where you can see them. I have seen the Dall’s sheep, another wild sheep, in Denali; but at that time they were tiny dots of white way up at the top of the mountains. Fortunately we had our spotting scope and binoculars and we could admire them even from a distance. Taking the time to observe and revere the wild mammals of our country is one easy step toward preserving them.