By: Marlene Affeld
Mystical and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep is a treasured member of Montana’s wildlife heritage and an icon of the American West. Bighorn Sheep are amazingly sure-footed, swift and strong. Considered the most sociable of Montana’s big game animals, big horn sheep delight and intrigue; to view these incredible animals in the wild is a moment of magic.
For wildlife enthusiasts, photographers and big game hunters, Bighorn Sheep remain among the outdoor experiences that become valued memories. Considered the rarest of North America’s big game animals, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep live in hard-to-access rocky cliffs and amid rock fields close to or above the tree line.
During the winter months, when heavy snow fall drives the herds down from the high country, hundreds of Bighorn Sheep can be seen at the Koo-Koo-Sint Bighorn Viewing Site located in the Lolo National Forest near Thompson Falls, Montana. These agile and nimble footed animals are fascinating to watch from afar with binoculars or a spotting scope.
Today, approximately 6,000 Bighorn Sheep, in 40 distinct populations, inhabit over 3.7 million acres of Montana and can be seen at many locations throughout the state including the Gallatin River Canyon. Substantial sheep populations have also been established in the Missouri Breaks.
Admired and respected by the Apsaalooka, or Crow People, the Bighorn Sheep is integral to tribal culture. The Crow Indians relied on the sheep to provide food, clothing, tools and tradeable goods. Examples of the craftsmanship and artistry of the Crow Indians can be found in the beautiful bows they carved from the sheep horns. Aggressively sought out and exchanged along the trade routes, a Bighorn Sheep bow was highly prized.
The area known as the Bighorn Mountain Range was central to the Apsaalooka tribal lands. Bighorn Sheep are important in mythology of Native Americans. A Crow legend tells of a man who, possessed by many evil spirits, attempted to kill his son by pushing the young warrior off a high cliff. However, the young man’s life was saved when the forest branches reached out their arms and entangled him. Rescued and adopted by the Bighorn Sheep, the young man took the name of the herd leader, Big Metal. The other sheep granted the warrior wisdom, power, sure-footedness, keen hearing, great strength and a strong heart. When Big Metal returned to his people he carried the message from the Great Spirit; the Apsaalooka People would only survive as long as the river that wound out of the mountains was known as the Bighorn River.
Scientists tell us that originally the Bighorn Sheep crossed the land bridge from Siberia to North America and migrated southward where their population peaked in the millions. Less than two hundred years ago, more than two million bighorn sheep ranged from Northern New Mexico to Canada. However, as the white man moved west, bighorn sheep, like the bison, were hunted near to the point of extinction. The bighorn sheep population was also damaged by diseases, including pneumonia, caught from the domestic sheep herds the settlers brought with them. By 1900, the Bighorn Sheep population diminished to only a few thousand sparsely populated across North America.
Appropriately named for their giant horns, Bighorn Sheep (ovis canadensis) are a species of wild sheep that inhabit both Siberia and North America.
The Bighorn Sheep has a grayish-brown coat with a yellow-white underbelly with a creamy-white rump patch around a small brown tail. The massive and curled horns of an adult ram will measure up to 45 inches long and often weight over 30 lbs each. The ewes have horns as well, however theirs are 6-13 inches long and are only slightly curved. Old rams often weigh in excessive of 300 pounds and ewes average 150 pounds.
The herds segregate according to sex and age; ewes and the young lambs and yearling males will band together, the larger adult males will band in herds grouping together about 2 to 3 year age spans.
Bighorn Sheep breed in the fall with intense mating competition or “head-butting” amongst the males; rams battle for dominance by a fierce clashing of horns. Ewes normally breed at 2 1/2 years of age, but often breed as yearlings. Lambing happens in April through June.
If you visit Montana and encounter Bighorn Sheep along the roadside, do not get out of your vehicle and approach too closely. Bighorn Sheep appear docile, but have been known to charge people who make them uncomfortable or crowd them to closely. Remember to always allow wild animals the natural space they require and enjoy them from a distance.