Uttleystrails.com Wildlife Stories

Bighorn Sheep Story                       


In Photo # 297 (below), we see a World Record Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Ram.  He is carrying a world class pair of horns, and he weighs (estimate) close to 500 pounds, all bone, horn and muscle.  He is in better physical condition than most world class athletes.  He is the Boss in his domain, so I named him “Boss”.  When Boss walks, all other sheep get out of his path well before he gets to them.  If not, Boss gives an almost imperceptible pointing of his horns, telling the sleepy-head to "move it before I get there" or feel the hammers.


Most people would not see the warnings that Boss or other animals send to each other, or to you.  Animal body language is at first so subtle (to a human), so you must listen to them carefully with your eyes, but you can't stare at them (bad manners), or you will find anger looking back at you.




Record sized Bighorn rams are among the most prized trophy animals in North America.  Very few hunters have ever seen the likes of this ram, valued at ninety thousand to one hundred thousand U.S. dollars in the trophy market.


Without considering subspecies, there are two kinds of Bighorn sheep in Canada and the United States, the Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep (Ovis Canadensis) and the Dall sheep (Ovis dalli).  The Dall is white, while the Bighorn is light to dark brown.  Speaking generally, Bighorn Sheep live south of western Canada's Peace River, and Dall Sheep live north of the Peace River.  Bighorn sheep have no fear of high places, and will often have main pathways across ledges on cliff faces that may be hundreds or a thousand feet high.  Sheep’s feet are two toed, and each toe is able to act independently to spread and adjust the weight of the foot evenly on tilted rock surfaces, earthen surfaces, and ice, giving the animal great ability to walk, run or jump on slopes or ledges that a man would find very difficult or impossible to navigate.  Over such terrain, the Bighorn can out climb and out run any predator except the cougar and occasionally, an unexpected aerial predator.


Sometimes the Golden Eagle might grab a young Kid (juvenile) or dive at a bighorn walking the narrow paths on the cliff face. The hope is to cause the Bighorn to loose it's footing and fall to it's death below.  Seems that Golden Eagles very much like the taste of wild mutton.


Sometimes one or more Bighorn sheep may be caught and die in a landslide or avalanche, and this is not uncommon.  Sometimes they lose their footing and fall off a rock cliff to their death.  Very often up on the mountain, sudden winds in excess of one hundred miles per hour may come at them, like the devil’s breath, cold, violent, maybe wet, and maybe filled with large ice pellets, wood debris and or rock fragments that can rip your hide.  I’ve never seen it happen, but I’m guessing we lose a few Mountain Goats and Bighorn Sheep to such winds now and again.  Normally these animals are warned long in advance by the feel of new isobars moving in and they go to ground before the dangerous winds arrive. 


If you would like to hike the higher mountains, don't miss the story entitled "Dangerous Winds".


I believe it was 1980, when December was shirt sleeve warm in the mountains.  Later, in January, I was walking across a frozen mountain lake about a mile long east and west, and about a quarter mile wide north and south. There was an eight hundred foot cliff at the west end, about a quarter mile from me.  On the ice surface at the base of the cliff, there were a number of objects, so I wandered over to investigate.  Fourteen Bighorn sheep lay scattered about, dead on the ice. This place was high enough on the mountain to expect the dangerous winds mentioned above, so did that cause the killings?  Best first obvious guess, during the warmth of December, the rock travel paths glazed over with very slippery Ice.  One Bighorn slipped and fell, causing other members of the herd to panic and fall.


Second best guess, an eagle or other predator dove at a kid or adult, causing it to fall, and that could cause the other herd members to panic and fall.


This is not the kind of picture I can use to decorate living rooms, but I did take some black and white film pictures of the dead sheep for the record.  If I find them I will add one Black and White to this story.


This event was good news to many meat eating creatures that now had a food source that would help them survive the winter.  Some win, some lose, it’s the way of the woods and it's the way of the mountain.


After seeing something like fourteen dead Bighorns on the ice, most folks get to walk their sad feelings to the car. Not me!  The Universe had not yet thrown me a reason for today’s adrenaline squirt. 


This was not a special lake, it was just a special time for the lake.  As said, it was one mile long, one quarter mile wide, with maybe three or four feet of ice cover, and high mountain walls on three sides.  In the winter, over time, some lake water continuously leaks and disappears into the ground below the lake, leaving the ice cover high above the diminishing water level. Sooner or later the ice will crack and fall down to float or rest on the water again.  That was to be now, as I stood there photographing the dead Bighorns on the lake.


Suddenly and unexpectedly a hugely loud and very sharp, hollow sound, like a high power rifle Report that lasted for 4 or five seconds, started at the very east end of the lake, past within thirty feet of me and quit at the cliff face at the west end of the lake.  As said, the time duration of the mile long ice crack in progress was four or five seconds, with all of the huge sound echoing off all three mountain walls. Ho Ho, Ho ! That was today’s adrenaline squirt.


My feet felt no detectable vibration or movement of the ice during the ice cracking period.  I must guess the ice cover fell very slowly and no more than an inch if that much, because the water volume that leaked up onto the ice surface was very small, not more than twenty feet wide beside the mile long crack.  I stood still a few minutes waiting for secondary cracks, maybe at the shore edges, but there were none.  Didn't matter, Ho Ho, that was today’s adrenaline squirt.


For wild animals the later part of the winters become more difficult as food becomes harder to find. Generating sufficient body heat in subzero temperatures, awake or sleeping, requires considerable energy and burns precious winter food and stored body fat. ......................Unfinished section


 Boss Photo #050




Looking at Photo # 050 (above), I need to climb up that little slope to position the camera in front of the ram, in order to photograph him with a nice valley and mountain background.  I’ve tried four times to climb the slope, but I keep sliding back down.  I can’t go up that little slope behind him because it would be considered bad manners, causing him to turn around and hammer me, or just trot away.  So I try the slope in front of him again, slide back down again, and pause to reconsider.  The ram is now staring and indicating total disgust in my performance.  He’s thinking “What are you doing here Uttley, you even brought the wrong kind of feet”.


Ok, that hurt.  In the last four days I've had poor image production due to atmospherics, muscle fatigue, facial windburn, frost bitten fingers, and all the best effort that the RB6x7 and I could deliver, just to immortalize him on people's  walls.  So I snapped two pictures of him, then bounced down the mountain and drove to the nearest town because of the poor light.  I spent a couple of days testing the bacon and eggs and roast beef in the café and the hotel and pampered my wind burnt face with mineral oil, soaked my bones in hot water with Epsom Salts, and pouted.  I was infuriated by that ram's attitude.  Then I reconsidered the last picture I took of him and suddenly, the clouds cleared, the big cathedral pipe organ shook the mountains, and I was overcome with Revelation and Clarity;  Yes!  Yes!  I got something I’d never seen before,…… a 60 by 70 mm image of a Hunter's Trophy Class Bighorn Ram, in "A STATE OF TOTAL DISGUST".  To my knowledge it's the only such photo in the world.


Ho Ho, two pearls produced, just because those two last pictures were snapped.


And so we learn that with additional effort, innovation, and corrective planning implemented with fluidity of movement in the field, we can sometimes bring a favorable result, indeed, a greatly improved result to an otherwise failed plan, thus saving ourselves from the loss of face to an overly smug Bighorn sheep.  


Winston Photo #008



Looking at Photo # 008 (above);  I wanted to get a picture of this bright eyed ram in the best proper portrait pose possible, with at least one eye looking straight into the RB 6x7 lens.  In truth that eye is on the vegetables instead of the camera, but it's close enough.  I named this fellow…. Winston.  Of course, he doesn't know what a camera is, he doesn’t need a picture of himself, and he is not, in any way, going to be much help in making my picture.


Winston was travelling, headed for a patch of plants that he wanted to eat.  I knew where Winston was going, so I picked up the pace and beat him to that patch.  When Winston got there, there I was, lying down, sprawled all over his lunch.  Yes he was upset, the patch was too small for both of us to feed, and I was sending signals indicating I was the Alpha male, so I had first rights.  Winston was not long convinced, but I had him bluffed for the moment.  He fidgeted with several bites of grass and plants on the edges, then moved up the slope 90 degrees above me, gaining a tactical advantage.  There you see him in Photo # 013 (below), and he is getting impatient, so, in a dignified manner, I slid out of the patch and let him in.  It will be some time yet before Winston is full boned and fully muscled up.  Never the less, he is now a dangerous adversary if angered.


Winston Photo #013


A disabling injury out here means you will die slowly in pain, or be eaten alive by the first bear or wolf that comes along. It’s best not to play with the animals, even if you go out there with a companion.  He won't be much help if you get hurt. No cell phones back then or now, in most of that country.


Photo # 389 (below) shows another nice ram, note the clear cut logging area in the background behind the river.




In Photo # 134 (below) you can see battle damage on this ram’s horns.  I named him Jack.  I’m lying in the middle of Jack’s intended lunch, and he’s impatiently working his way closer and closer, wanting to eat the dark green plants that you see.  He will be signaling me to leave soon, because we are having the same kind of go-round that Winston and I had some days ago, resulting in another nice picture of a World Class Trophy Ram.  This guy’s a lot bigger and tougher than Winston.

 Jack Photo #134


Photo # R-065 (below) shows another world class trophy ram.  I named this guy …Oscar.  Some folks might mistake him as a Dall Ram, but he is a Bighorn. By the end of August his hair has become very sun bleached, and he will become darker colored as his new winter coat starts to grow in another month or so. 


Oscar Photo #314


Several times, Oscar walked behind the bushes and spent considerable time staring at me, as seen in Photo R-111h-w (below).  He may be trying to figure out if I’m a very large squirrel, or the front half of a horse.  Just as animals have distinctly different personalities, some are also visibly smarter.


Oscar Photo #111c


Note how Winston’s horns in Photo #008 (top of page) taper to almost perfect points, giving that magnificent appearance to the animal.  He and his horns will continue to grow, and one day he will break those perfect points off by grinding them on rocks.   The ends of the horns interfere with his vision.  As the horns continue to grow he will continue to grind them down.  The ground horns are then referred to as “Broomed” horns.  In the previous Photo R-111, you can see that Oscar has both horns broomed.  Oscar is much older than Winston, and perhaps seventy-five pounds heavier.


In Photo # 302 (below), note the short tree stump in front of the Rams. That tree and all it's tree buddies get sheared off by avalanches every so many years, and the Bighorn sheep know when there is a danger of avalanche activity. When an avalanche danger is present, the Sheep are very alert to this danger and avoid these areas.
Also in Photo R-302, you can see the broomed horns of the front ram are considerably more massive than the nicely pointed horns of the rear ram.  Note the body weight of the front ram is greater that the body weight of the rear ram, meaning the ram in front is the champion.  When glassing distant rams with binoculars, riflescope or spotting scope, the animal’s body or horn mass cannot be accurately estimated.

 Photo #302


For you hunters, it’s an optical "distortion" that you can overcome.  Distance to, and size of an animal or object, cannot be correctly estimated by viewing through binoculars, riflescopes or spotting scopes.  Such telescopic devices optically shorten distance, and cause distant targets to look bigger, of course.  You can argue that you can estimate distance through your optics, as most hunters do, or you can dazzle your hunting buddies with the following experiment, which is most easily carried out on a relatively flat field:


Get two boxes of identical size and appearance, say two feet wide and two feet tall.  From the point of your shooting position, place the first box 500 yards distant.  Place the second box 625 yards distant, behind the first box.  Tell your buddies that the first box is (use any numbers you want) 500 yards out, and ask them to estimate the distance to the second box, and then the distance between the two boxes.  Their estimates will verify the optical distortion.  Military trainees attending long range precision marksmanship courses are put through more detailed exercises so they may avoid errors due to such optical distortions.  They learn to use Mil-Dot reticles and a little calculator to achieve considerably greater accuracy in range estimations.


And the hawk soars 300 yards above you, searching for gophers on the ground.  It takes 10 x magnification for a man to see a gopher at 300 yards.  Bighorn sheep have eyes like the hawk, that’s why they’re gone when the hunter sees them.


Photo R-390 (below) is one of the rare pictures wherein you will see my shadow.  Doesn’t matter here, this picture is not intended as a wall hanger.



This photo was taken only to show the damage that can be imparted to a mature ram’s horns over some years of fighting for prominence.  Note the horn damage farthest away from the animals head.  This is old damage from several years back.  As the horns grew outward, the new butting surfaces in turn became damaged.  I would guess this fellow’s horns show more damage than some, suggesting he is a very eager competitor but must fight more often than genetically superior and older rams.  Genetically superior rams fight less often because their superior size and strength is obvious to the lesser Rams.


Most often, those animals with the biggest bones, including sheep, deer, moose, elk, bears, weasels, bunnies and gophers, are found in areas being rich in bone building limestone, minerals, and better plant life.  Champions become champions by being lucky enough to have received the best genes and the best nutrition.  The biggest ram with the biggest horns is “Boss” of the herd and is the main breeding ram.  You can easily see that by watching him "Do the Walk" through the flock, anytime he feels like it.  It's his Flock.


A group of domestic sheep are referred to as a "flock of sheep", but it's a "herd of Bighorn sheep".  Domestic sheep are covered in wool.  Bighorn sheep are covered in... feels like hair… looks like hair… acts like hair.  How odd.  It's all so confusing because of the better known Los Angelese Rams, but they play further south.


Imagine yourself back 1500 A.D., in the Chivalric time when Kings and Barons of England and European countries held contests, wherein armored Knights pitted their jousting skills, swordsmanship and skill with the spiked mace, to win fame and trophies of gold.  During competitions, rules of good conduct and proper manners were mandatory throughout these games.  When the flag was raised and the Joust began, both competitors carried out their offensive intent to win, employing their most effective offensive technique and every milligram of adrenalin they could squirt.  After all, being the Iron clad looser of the competition meant that you would exit the arena only with assistance, and looking like a car's front end after a motor vehicle accident.


It was all great fun back then, and the competitors were as well known across Europe as our best football players are in America today.  Guess what!  Knights of Old didn’t invent the jousting field or the Rules of Conduct, the Bighorn Sheep Rams did, way, way back, in a time long before the Neanderthal Man threw rocks and spears and jumped on animals with violent purpose. 


For many years, Paleontologists wondered why the fossil record showed the Neanderthal population suffered a huge number of upper body bone fractures.  By comparing ancient man-like occupations and modern day man-like occupations, it was realized Neanderthal hunters suffered the same type of upper body bone breakage and gouges that only today’s rodeo cowboys get.  Further study confirmed such injuries are the occupational hazard of playing with animals. 


So this discovery was a revelation, wherein the phenomenon revealed that, more or less on a weekly basis, Neanderthal Man conducted group hunts, group spear fights, and group hand to hand mortal combat with game animals such as the Bighorn sheep, elk, horses, deer, moose, great big pigs, really big primitive bears and other scary things, much like our modern rodeo cowboys and bull fighters do today.  That’s why we refer to the Neanderthal people as Hunter Gatherers.  After the hunt, spear fight and the jumping upon animals, the surviving Neanderthal hunters gathered the animal pieces to make food, tools, pants and shirts.


So there you have it, proof of the result and importance of hunting, collecting, examining, and studying the fossil record.  Now we know.  Then or today, it's the way of the woods.


Dennis Uttley, Uttleystrails.com Wildlife Stories.