Somewhere around 750,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch some wild sheep crossed the Bering land bridge from what is now Siberia into North America. They continued their emigration southward with some ending up as far south as Baja California. Their eastern limit was the Rocky Mountains, as their rather blocky physique does not lend itself much toward running great distances on the plains to avoid predators. Sheep prefer rugged broken country with a lot of mountains. Their lack of long-distance running athleticism is more than made up with their abilities to climb virtually anything.
This penchant for living in high, remote, craggy places means that wild sheep live in some of the most beautiful and majestic pieces of real estate on this old rock. Sheep are truly horned creatures, and their headgear is a biography of each animal’s life. As with most ungulates, the males—rams—are more dominating in appearance, and their horns are far more pronounced than the ewes.
Wild sheep eventually evolved into two basic animals: Argali or “thin-horn” sheep and big horn sheep. Argali sheep include the Dall and Stone sheep of Alaska and the Yukon, as well as Ovis poli of Asia. Within these divisions are several species and sub-species. The horns of Argali rams are somewhat corkscrew in appearance and often have the relatively sharp “lamb tips” that are their first-year horn. Big horn rams have a more close-curl horn with the ends on older rams rubbed off or “broomed” so that the animal’s sight is not impeded.
Pre-Columbian population estimates for North American wild sheep are in the millions. Lewis & Clark wrote extensively of mountain sheep in their exploratory expedition of the west. As the west became more settled, unregulated hunting and competition from domestic livestock threatened to eliminate North American wild sheep. Conservation efforts led largely by hunters have been very successful—so much so that now sheep can be hunted in all of the western states.
Sheep have become the royalty of North American big game hunters. Tags or licenses are tightly regulated, tough to get and often very expensive. I have yet to draw a sheep tag, but on several occasions I have had the privilege of being among them in their lofty ranges while hunting deer or elk, or a few times years ago cowboying in the backcountry. It takes plenty of iron in your legs and a healthy set of lungs to get to sheep summer range.
However, the sheep’s stocky profile prevents them from tolerating deep snow. This time of year they can be found at relatively low elevations, and because of rigorous regulations preventing the molesting of these magnificent animals, they are not as wild and elusive as, say, deer or elk are. Too, this is the time of year they rut. God did not put those huge horns on rams for no reason. Horns are what determine a ram’s status in the herd and establish a breeding pecking order. Most folks have heard about the butting of heads that occur during the rut. I was blessed with the opportunity to witness a pair of mature—if not over-the-top spectacular—rams duking it out on the road that leads from Cody to Yellowstone National Park earlier this week. Even better, I had my camera with me, and the images you see here are from that day. I’ll go into further detail of the battle in another blog, but I hope you enjoy these images.