The bighorn sheep is the mammalian symbol of Colorado. Colorado is home to the largest population of the species anywhere. The animals are five to six feet long with a tail three to six inches in length. Rams weigh 150-250 pounds and the ewes 120-200. Males are about three feet high at the shoulder, ewes slightly less. Color is usually grayish brown, with a paler belly and white rump patch. The massive, coiled horns of mature rams may make up to 10 percent of the body weight. Ewes have spiked horns.
"Brooming" is the term used to describe the chipping and fraying of horns, usually caused by fighting. Some brooming may be caused by accidents or digging. Rams achieve a "full curl" at about seven or eight years of age. Usually the bighorn sheep are diurnal, being active during daylight and exhibit little nighttime activity. Adult rams stay segregated from the ewes, except during rut. Young rams join bands of rams when they are two or three years old. Rams battle each other, cracking horns, to test dominance within the herd.
There are two species of bighorn in Colorado, the Rocky Mountain, which is native, and the desert bighorn, introduced near the Colorado National Monument in 1979. The Monument population is 300-400 in the entire herd. The herd is in an area from the Uniweep Canyon to the Utah state border. (The pictures taken were on the Colorado National Monument.) Colorado herds are widely scattered throughout the mountains and foothills of the state. In North America, species of bighorn occur from South British Columbia, Southwest Alberta, Idaho and Montana to Southeast California, Arizona and New Mexico.
Bighorns typically occur in steep, high mountain terrain. In Colorado they prefer habitat dominated by grass, low shrubs, rock cover and areas near open space. They often retreat to rest on inaccessible cliffs. Many bands now spend all year near timberline on what used to be their traditional summer home. Hunting bighorns is carefully regulated. Approximately 100-300 sheep are harvested annually. Parasitic disease is common in bighorns. Coyotes, mountain lions and eagles prey on them, and some bighorns succumb to accidental falls.
Bighorn are primarily grazers, feeding in meadows, open woodland, and alpine tundra. However, they will also eat forbs (herbaceous plants) in the summer and browse in the winter. Grasses eaten by bighorn sheep includes bluegrass, sedges, wheat grass, brooms and rescues.
Gestation averages from five to six months or about 175 days. Breeding occurs in November or December. Lambs are born April through May and early June. A single lamb is the norm. Lambs are weaned when they're about four months old, and sometimes as early as one month. All teeth are permanent by four years old. Bighorns can live to be 15-20 years old, but seldom do in the wild. Ewes usually live to be 10-12 years old. Rams seem to have a somewhat higher mortality rate.
I would like to thank Mike Porras, Colorado Division of Wildlife and Elisabeth Barrett, for the wonderful pictures of the Colorado National Monument Herd.
Shirley has a new book out, titled "Times, they are a' changin', but good memories & food never do!" She shares the story of how she came to America from Britain, cowboy poetry, chuckwagon recipes, and much more. The price is $17.95, which includes shipping. Contact Shirley at: Gladewoman1@juno. com, or PO Box 23231, Glade Park, CO 81523.
BY SHIRLEY KELLY
GLADE PARK, COLORADO