It’s prime time for viewing Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

These two Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ewes were photographed along the Fryingpan River road.

It’s November, which means all the head-butting isn’t limited to Washington, D.C.

Wildlife watchers consider November and December the prime months to view the head-banging behavior of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, Colorado’s state mammal since 1961.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Stephanie Duckett, terrestrial biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s Northwest Region. “Bighorn sheep really are charismatic animals.”

Colorado is fortunate to have an abundance of “charismatic megafauna,” as biologists are ready to say. Elk, moose, black bears, mule deer, pronghorn and Rocky Mountain goats all offer unique viewing opportunities, but nothing compares to the male-dominance patterns exhibited by bighorn sheep during rutting season.

Lining up 20 feet or more apart, lowering their heads and rushing forward to meet head-on with an explosive sound that rings off the surrounding mountains, the fight for dominance between rams offers one of the truly memorable sights and sounds in wildlife viewing.

From a wildlife lover’s standpoint, bighorn sheep present a conundrum.

You might spend hours or days futilely trying to see the herd that hangs out in the Main Canyon area north of Cameo, yet you could drive along Interstate 70 and in several places have to dodge bighorn sheep wandering the highway.

There are bighorn sheep to be seen along the Fryingpan River, between Ridgway and Ouray, Glenwood Canyon, the Taylor River canyon north of Gunnison and along Colorado Highway 141 near the top of Nine-mile Hill on the way to Gateway.

“But that’s not a good place to stop, since you almost have to be in the road to see the sheep,” Duckett cautioned. “The monument probably is safer.”

Desert bighorn sheep wander in from the Black Ridge area to hang out in the western portion of Colorado National Monument, Duckett said.

“We didn’t know where they went until we started radio-collaring them,” Duckett said. “They can be pretty elusive animals.”

The DOW is conducting a multi-year study of the Black Ridge desert bighorn, looking at survival and mortality data along with habitat studies and how the Black Ridge herd interacts with other desert sheep herds in western Colorado and eastern Utah. Funding for the study came from the DOW as well as from raffles and auctions of bighorn sheep hunting licenses by sportsmen and conservation groups.

According to the DOW’s bighorn sheep management plan, the statewide populations of Rocky Mountain and desert bighorn sheep have declined slightly over the past seven years from a combined 8,000 or so in 2001 to 7,400 in 2007. But as was noted in the plan, “population estimation for bighorn sheep generally is difficult and ... less precise than what we have for other big game species.”

Some of the reasons for the difficulties include the rugged terrain preferred by sheep as well as the animals’ ability to dodge aerial surveyors.

The widespread popularity of bighorn sheep and the relative ease with which they might be spotted in certain areas have led to several bighorn festivals around Colorado.

The largest festival is the annual Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Festival on Saturday and Sunday.

“Georgetown is one of the few places in Colorado you are almost guaranteed to see bighorn sheep, particularly during breeding season in November and December,” said Mary McCormac, education coordinator for the northeast region at the DOW.  “Every year we’ve been fortunate to introduce the public to the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep from our Wildlife Viewing Area. The sheep always put on a good show and an educational and fun time is had by all.”

Spotting scopes will be set up and biologists will be on hand to talk about bighorn sheep. A complete agenda is available by searching “Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Festival” on the Internet.

Grand Valley residents are lucky in that they may see both desert and Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep within a few miles of each other.

“It’s the only place where both herds may be seen,” Duckett said.

Rocky Mountain sheep are nearing the peak of their rut, while the desert variety is already finished and calm has been restored to the herds.

“Well, you might see a late ram or two, but most of the activity has past,” Duckett said. “The ewes will be dropping their lambs in February.”

Bighorn sheep were recently seen and photographed near the west entrance to Colorado National Monument but a trip Sunday failed to find sheep.

“We haven’t heard of any for the last couple of days,” said ranger Lynda Herrerra at the monument’s west entrance station. “They usually hang out in Fruita Canyon, and many people see them from the road.”


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