The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in Colorado

April 28, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

I feel fortunate to share the forests and mountains with several large mammal species in my little corner of Colorado. There are black bears, moose, mountain lions, elk and bighorn sheep. While there is some habitat cross-over, each species has different preferences and needs. Bighorn sheep spend much of their summers at high elevations. One of their defenses from predators is their ability to negotiate seemingly impossible terrain with ease. In winter, they move to lower elevations where the snow is not as deep and food can still be found.

Bighorn sheep have roamed the landscape for tens of thousands of years. Native American tribes told of herds numbering in the hundreds and thousands, but today's herds are much smaller.

Bighorn rams grow horns that can weight as much as 30lbs, which are put to use during the mating season when fights occur to establish dominance.

Bighorn ewes seem to be photographed less frequently than rams, but are no less fascinating. They have a six-month gestation period and, after moving to higher ground, their lambs are born in the spring.

Often weighing less than 10lbs at birth, bighorn lambs can usually walk within a few hours. They are weaned within six months.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is Colorado's state animal (moose are not indigenous to Colorado, if you were wondering). The bighorn ram is also the symbol of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state agency given the task of protecting them. The ram is also, if you're interested in that kind of thing, the symbol of my star sign - Aries.

Despite all their fame and rugged appearance, they are at risk. Hunting is now far more carefully managed than 100 years ago, so now their biggest threat is from a seemingly unlikely source. Domesticated sheep can carry pathogens that the bighorn herds have no defense against. If, for example, a bighorn ram comes into contact with an infected domestic herd and then returned to his herd, infectious pneumonia can spread and kill most (or all) of the herd. If the bighorn is to survive, domesticated sheep grazing must take place many miles from a bighorn herd's range (many herd are being monitored with GPS collars).

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep belongs in Colorado's wilderness. After all, what is wilderness without wildlife?


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