Thursday, April 19, 2018

Bighorn Sheep Facts

Large Ram at the lodge in December of 2003

Bighorn Sheep Info and Facts



Here at McGregor Mountain Lodge, we see a lot of bighorn sheep! We are actually one of the best places in the state of Colorado to get a view of these majestic creatures. We get a lot of questions about them and folks seem to be quite curious about this species in particular. A sheep on the side of the road, or even spotted high on the mountainside, causes an instant traffic jam as excited tourists are quick to get their cameras out to document this, sometimes, once in a lifetime experience!

So let's get to it. Here are some interesting facts about bighorns in general and even some info about the herd(s) we see here at the lodge.


Herd of ewes and lambs -April '18
Physical Stats 

Bighorn can live up to 15 years in the wild.
On average, they weigh roughly 200 lbs.
Average length is approximately 5.5 feet.
Females are called Ewes and have much smaller horns than the males (Rams). Ewes horn will never be larger than a half curl.


Diet

In the summer they eat grasses and sedges and will also snack on flowers and greening bushes. In the winter they will subsist on willow, sage, and other more hardy, woody foliage.


Horns

Their horns are a display of dominance. The older rams have larger horns (that can weigh up to 30 lbs) and this shows their rightful place in the herd. You can also tell the age of the rams by looking closely at their horns. There is typically a larger more prominent ring on their horns for every year they have been alive. Bighorns do not shed their horns, as horns are permanent, antler are shed annually (elk, deer moose, etc all have antlers).


Range

Sheep are once again widespread over western North America. Through rehabilitation programs, their populations have returned to many places they were no longer seen. There are bighorn sheep from Texas to Montana and from Mexico to Washington and into Canada.


Population

It is thought there are less than 70,000 sheep remaining. In the early 1800's there was thought to be close to 2 million animals in the American west. Though this number seems low in comparison, sheep are considered in good shape, population-wise, with healthy herds and growing numbers.


Social and Family

Most herds you see will be between 5 and 20 animals. Mostly ewes, yearling lambs and up to 2 year old rams. Adult rams will typically stay in smaller groups of up to five animals. Occasionally the female herds will band together in the winter and you may see herds of up to 100 animals, though herds that large are rare. It's more common to see winter ewe herds of 30 - 50 animals. Their mating season is in the fall (November/December) when rams compete for ewes with head butting contests. They can battle each other for up to 24 hours and can hit each other with both rams traveling 20 miles per hour. The resulting 'crack' can be heard from more than a mile away!

A large ram above the lodge - January 2009
Herds at McGregor 

While, technically, we see sheep from one herd, local biologists can differentiate sheep in two different sub groups. The Mummy Herd is characterized by a much lighter coat, almost white. They tend to spend more time in the tundra of the Mummy Range and are a bit more bleached, or sun kissed, than their friends in the Black Canyon Herd. Sheep in the Black Canyon Herd spend more time in the lower Mummy Range, in Black Canyon, and have a much darker coat from being below the trees more often.


Behavior

Ram - December '03
Though very curious, they can become stressed very easily. They like to see what's going on, so will often approach a running vehicle or a construction project on the lodge grounds. They seem to watch closely to see what's going on. With that said, if they feel threatened or if their normal routes to food or water are encumbered, they can get very stressed and are much more prone to disease and illness. It's always a good idea to give them plenty of space and not try to approach them. Not only for your own safety, but also to make sure they always feel at home and safe wherever they decide to go.






Where to find them

When visiting Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park, the very best place to find sheep is right here at McGregor Mountain Lodge. The south facing mountainside to our east and west are also great spots. Just drive toward the National Park and look up to the right (north) on the sunny hillside and you have as good a chance at seeing these creatures as anywhere in the world. The winter and spring months will increase your chances as they tend to move to higher ground as the snow melts in late spring and summer.

If you don't mind putting some miles under your legs, a couple of great hikes with good chances to see them are the hike to Mt. Ida from Milner Pass and the hike to Crystal Lake from the Lawn Lake Trail Head. Note that both of these hikes are quite difficult and will take most of a day to complete. Mt. Ida is 10 miles round trip and Crystal Lakes are about 14 miles round trip.


I hope this gave a bit of insight into these awesome animals. If there is anything else you'd like to know, feel free to leave a question in the comments and we'll do our best to answer. And if you want to see them for yourself, come on out for a visit and we'll do our best to make sure the sheep are here to greet you upon your arrival! ;)


A small herd of ewes and lambs - April 2018