Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep roam the hillsides throughout the park. NPS Photo

Once an important food source for Shoshone “Sheepeater” Indians, bighorn sheep (Ovis Canadensis) are synonymous with Yellowstone’s rocky crags in the Washburn, Gallatin, and Absaroka Mountain Ranges. Drawing their name from the distinctive curved horns mounted to their heads, bighorn sheep in the park today are nearly identical to the bighorn sheep that roamed the region more than 10,000 years ago. Although bighorn sheep populations have significantly dwindled since the Ice Age, the animal’s characteristically stocky body, white rumps, and brown-gray coats can still occasionally be found dotting Yellowstone’s most rugged terrain. Researchers believe that Yellowstone’s annual bighorn sheep population averages between 150 and 225, a relatively sparse number compared to the thousands that roamed the Rocky Mountain region prior to the 1900s.

Since the demise of hunting in the park, bighorn sheep have been free to roam Yellowstone’s landscape with little trepidation. These members of the cattle family live in herds year-round where the rams (males) engage in a fierce competition for mating rights every November and December. Although the rams fiercely butt one another in the head with horns weighing up to forty pounds, calcium deposits known as ossicones protect the animals from brain damage. Winners of these ferocious battles then earn the right to mate with the herd’s spiky-horned ewes, each of which will deliver one to two lambs during May or June.

In addition to their unusual horns, bighorn sheep also possess unique hooves. Hard and durable on the outside, the sheep’s hooves feature a spongy underside allowing them to grip rocks and leap effortlessly from one crag to another. While not busy wandering across Yellowstone’s steep terrain, the park’s bighorn sheep graze on grass and brush, drink in the refreshing waters of Yellowstone’s rivers, and stock up on minerals at natural salt licks. The ewes have a keen sense of lurking danger from mountain lions, eagles, and coyotes and are responsible for leading the rest of the herd to safety atop peaks inaccessible to their predators. Despite an innate sense of balance and comfort with climbing steep terrain, bighorn sheep do occasionally fall off cliffs to their deaths.

Many of Yellowstone’s bighorn sheep shy away from public view, but a few have become accustomed to the traffic lining the Grand Loop Road. On Dunraven Pass, bighorn sheep frequently cause traffic jams as tourists snap photos and wait for the herd to clear the road. On such occasions, visitors are once again reminded not to feed the animals as it jeopardizes their innate food gathering ability.

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