Mystical and majestic, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep is a
treasured member of Montanas wildlife heritage and an icon of the
American West. Bighorn Sheep are amazingly sure-footed, swift and
strong. Considered the most sociable of Montanas 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 Americas 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
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
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 mans 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
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
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.