Majestic Bighorn Sheep

Watch your step! The rocky staircase can be treacherous!

Northwest Wyoming has the largest concentrations of Bighorn Sheep (Ovis canadensis) in the lower 48 states. In Yellowstone, bighorn sheep prefer rough, tall country where they have good escape routes from predators. There are fewer than 500 bighorn sheep in the park, with about 250 in the northern range. 

Bighorn sheep get their name from the large, curved horns on the rams (males) that can weigh up to 40 pounds. Ewes (females) also have horns, but they are shorter with less curvature. The sheep themselves can weigh in at around 350 pounds, but some in the Rocky Mountains can approach 500 pounds. They feed primarily on grasses and forage on shrubby plants in fall and winter.

The BigHorn sheep originally crossed to North America over the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia; the population in North America peaked in the millions, and the bighorn sheep entered into the mythology of Native Americans. Bighorn sheep were among the most admired animals of the Apsaalooka (Crow) people, and what is today called the Bighorn Mountain Range was central to the Apsaalooka tribal lands.

BigHorns are threatened by several predators, including black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, and especially mountain lions that have the agility to prey on them in uneven, rocky habitats. They have other enemies, too, unfortunately. By 1900, the population had diminished to several thousand because of diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting.

Restoration of bighorn sheep has been ongoing by many state and federal agencies since the 1940s. However, these efforts have met with only limited success, and most of the historical range of bighorns remains unoccupied.

So where can I see them? I'm glad you asked! If you want the best opportunity to spot them in Yellowstone, try Specimen Ridge, Mt. Washburn, and Mt. Everts. You will need to do some hiking, but these are all excellent areas where the bighorn sheep roam. You may also find them on the cliffs above the basalt columns in the Tower Falls area, and sometimes there is a group that hangs out near the picnic area just before you enter Lamar Valley.

Bighorn sheep are such majestic creatures and most definitely worth your time seeking them out when you visit Yellowstone. Good luck in your search! =]:)

Photo by NPS/Diane Renkin

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