When we planned our nature photography trip to the Western Canadian Rockies, we knew that we would have varied photographic opportunities. The majestic Rockies are a nature and travel lover's paradise: beautiful mountains, glaciers, famous lakes and Rocky Mountain Sheep. I was especially looking forward to the sheep and the majestic bighorn males called rams. They are famous for their large, curled horns.These impressive growths are a symbol of status and a weapon used in epic battles across the Rocky Mountains in the US and Canada. A Rocky Mountain bighorn can weigh 30 pounds, more then all the bones in his body combined. Females also have horns but they are of smaller size.
Rocky Mountain bighorns inhabit the mountains from Canada south to New Mexico. They are relatives of goats and have balance aiding split hooves and rough hoof bottoms for natural grip. These attributes, along with keen vision, help them move easily about rocky, rugged mountain terrain. Wild sheep live in social groups, but rams and ewes typically meet only to mate. Rams live in bachelor groups and females live in herds with other females and their young rams.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were between 1.5 million to two million bighorn sheep in North America. Today there are less than 70,000. We are losing the opportunity to photograph theses magnificent animals
The mating season is in November and December. The gestation period is five to six months usually producing one lamb. Lambs are born with soft, woolly, light-colored coats and small horn buds. A lamb will stay with its mother for the first year of its life. The young sheep are playful and will get butted by the elder when they upset them. This young one on the left upset the older ewe with this action but scampered away before the ewe could react. Smart move little one!!
Hunting, loss of food from livestock grazing and disease from domestic livestock have devastated bighorn sheep populations. While livestock is not as much of a threat as in the past, loss of habitat from development is an increasing threat. Normally, predators like mountain lions, wolves, bobcats, coyotes and golden eagles do not pose a threat to bighorn sheep. However, in areas where sheep populations are low, the death of a sheep from a natural predator can be a risk to the larger population.
Nearly one-third of California’s populations of desert bighorn sheep have died out in the past century. These losses have occurred primarily at lower elevations, where increases in temperature and decreases in precipitation have reduced the amount of vegetation available for foraging and the freshwater springs they depend on for water. More populations of desert bighorn sheep may be at risk as the southwestern climate continues to become hotter and dryer. I really hope that's not the case because these animals are such beautiful creatures and very trusting. Although they do seem to think, they allow us in the territory and kind of just tolerate us and our cars.
The population of peninsular bighorns hit a low of about 280 animals in 1996. Since then, thanks in large part to their inclusion on the federal endangered species list, their numbers have increased to about 600—offering hope that this nimble mountain dweller won’t fall off the precipice. As I was photographing them on the side of a busy main road in Radium Springs B.C, I was hopeful but could not help but worry about their survival as we keep encroaching on their territory. I pray that these majestic animals are here and prosper for many years to come so that others can have the experience of sharing and photographing their land with them and seeing their beauty and their incredible personalities. These animals and others like them are what nature photography and travel photography is all about
Height: Males (rams) are 3 – 3 ½ feet; Females (ewes) are smaller.
Length: Rams are 5 feet 3 inches to 6 feet; ewes are smaller.
Weight: Between 140 – 300 lbs, depending on the subspecies.
Horn length: More than 30 inches and 15 inches in circumference (rams); ewes have shorter horns with little curvature.
Horn weight: 30 lbs.
Lifespan: Rams live 9-12 years, while ewes live 10-14 years.