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A Lifetime of Stories: The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

Many years and countless hours in the saddle over hundreds of mountains are just part of what's required of the sheep hunter. This legendary story comes from Jack O'Connor in 1973.

 A Lifetime of Stories: The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

It is hard work and dedication to the stalk that ends with this hunter’s unusually fine shot. The bighorn, because he is hunted more, is smarter than northern sheep.

One afternoon in the late fall many years ago, another sheep hunter and I, along with our outfitter, a guide, our cook, and our horse wrangler, were pushing our little pack outfit down a snowy trail along the side of a big canyon in the Canadian Rockies. That day we had fought our way through deep windblown drifts over the last high pass that separated us from lower country, from a good trail, and eventually the railroad. All of us had been walking and leading our horses since morning, fighting cold and snow and fatigue. We were all desperately weary and light headed from hunger.

But we were over the hump now, through the drifts. Below us we could see the heavy dark spruce of a river valley, the winding silver of a still unfrozen stream, and grassy yellow meadows where our famished horses could get to grass without pawing for it.

Then faintly and from a distance I thought I could hear the click of billiard balls. A curious illusion! I dismissed it. Then again I heard the crack of ivory against ivory. . .and again. . .The noise seemed to come from above us and to the right.

Finally I turned to our cook, who was just behind me and who had once been a great sheep guide before arthritis and a hernia had slowed him up. "Have you heard anything funny?" I asked. "Something sort of like rocks striking." "I thought I did," he said, "and I was just going to ask you. It's bighorn rams fighting around here somewhere."

From the November 1973 issue of Petersen's HUNTING.

We stopped the outfit then to rest and to look around. While our weary horses sagged under their packs, heads down, and one even lay down to rest in the snow, old Charlie, the cook, and I climbed up on a little point beside the trail. It took the veteran sheep hunter but a moment to find them in his worn old Zeiss 10X binocular, a glass which had been given him by a German baron the day he led that foreign nobleman, a famous international big-game hunter of the World War I days, to a great old monarch with broomed and battered horns. "There they are, the sons of guns!" he told me, "right up under that black cliff in the snow. A couple are fighting. They just came together. Hear them?"


And again I heard that billiard-ball sound. I got them in my own glass. Two great brown rams were settling their differences. A half-dozen more stood around watching like school kids witnessing a recess brawl. Scattered over the hillslope picking daintily at small brush and plants that poked above the snow were about twenty ewes, lambs, and yearlings. They didn't even deign to watch the battle.

The two rams would walk stiffly away from each other, then they would whirl quickly and hurl themselves up and at each other with such fierce energy that the impact would throw them backward. After a few passes these two grew tired, turned their backs and walked away. Another pair took up the war. One ram walked over to a ewe, butted her roughly with his massive horns, smelled her, then walked away with stiff-legged disgust.

When the mating restlessness comes upon them in the fall, the battle of the mighty bighorn begins. Their settling of differences ends in a clash heard for miles.

"Just starting the rut," old Charlie said. "They're at it early this year. Guess it means a bad winter. They'll fight and raise hell and chivvy the ewes for a month or more. Then the old rams will be thin and scrawny and some of the old timers won't make it through the winter. . .Hey, take a look at that old bastard on the right. He's turned his head so you can see his horns good. Boy, look at him! If that head won't beat 40 inches I'll eat it. . ."

I could have watched those rams for hours, but evening was coming on and a bitter frost was rolling down the canyon from the snow fields and glaciers above. Just before we went around a point which would hide them I stopped for a last look. All were still there. All the rams had good shootable heads mostly of the close-curl type characteristic of the bighorn. The one old Charlie had picked out with his unerring sheep-hunter's eye was indeed a dandy, massive, heavy, with a curl of well over 40 inches, and then and there I began to regret that a couple of weeks before I had settled for a very good but lesser ram.

Then our outfitter, who led the packstring, called out to us impatiently. "Come on, you birds. It's getting late and I'm cold!" Regretfully old Charlie and I tucked our binoculars inside our down jackets, slid down through the snow to the horses, and took off. It was bitter cold and almost dark when we got down to wood and grass and water where we could make camp. In a few minutes the packs were off, the panniers and saddle pile protected from possible snow and rain by the pack covers, and the horses were tearing off mouthfuls of grass between jumps as they clumped off in their hobbles, their bells jangling. Presently the cook tent was up and blue smoke spiraled out of the stove pipe.

The most spectacular type of head found among the Rocky Mountain bighorn is the close curl as best shown on the sheep to the right. A heavily broomed bighorn head with such a massive base is a real trophy.

While the Indian horse wrangler was putting up the dude tent I sat down on a pannier and turned my binocular back on the pass from which we had just come. "Still looking for sheep?" Jim, the outfitter asked. "You and old Charlie are sheep happy. I thought I wasn't going to get you down off that hill until you'd froze your tails off !"

I have been sheep happy for forty years. Hunting sheep, watching sheep, thinking about sheep, worrying about sheep have long been preoccupations of mine. I would rather watch a couple of old rams battling it out than see the best musical on Broadway. I would rather get my glass on an old ram with heavy, massive horns than to get a look at Miss America in a bikini.


I have been fortunate enough to be able to collect the four varieties of North American wild sheep—the Rocky Mountain and the desert bighorns, the Dall, and the Stone. I love and admire them all. I am fascinated by the wild, rough country where sheep are found. I love the long-continued excitement of the stalk. I even enjoy the disappointments and the frustrations—those stalks that go astray when the sheep have moved, when the wind changes, when a suspicious ram comes back over the crest at the wrong moment.

O’Connor (right) with an excellent ram shot in 1943 on Chocolate Creek in Alberta. The horn measured 38 5/8. The ram was spotted on a bare point, brought down with one shot and rolled down into brush just above a creek.

Some hunters might consider the grizzly the top North American trophy. Others might go for the giant Alaska brown. A good case can be made for the jaguar. But me? I'm a sheep man. In my day I have made my share of stalks for the lovely snow-white Dall and for the black-bodied, gray-faced Stone. I have deep affection for all wild sheep. Nevertheless if I had to rate the North American sheep as trophies, I think I would have to put the bighorns on top—either desert or Rocky Mountain.

They are found in rougher country. Hunting them is harder work because whereas a horse can usually do most of the climbing for Stone and Dall, a hunt for the bighorn requires a good deal of climbing and a hunt for desert sheep (or at least where I've hunted them) is ALL foot work. The bighorns, because they have been hunted harder, are usually smarter than the northern sheep.

The North American sheep are all world trophies of the very top class and of these the burly brown bighorn of the Rocky Mountains with heavy massive horns, broomed, battered, nipped in close to the face and rubbed off so the points are wide and blunt, chipped from years of battering his horns against those of other big rams is one of the most difficult of all the world's trophies to come by.

But the classification of the bighorn as the continent's top trophy applies only to the heads of old rams from 10 to 14 years old. The horns of the wild sheep continue to grow as long as he lives, but they grow slowly during his final years. There are several types of sheep horns. Some come out away from the face in a wide, shallow spiral, a type much more common among the "thinhorns" (the Dalls and the Stones) than among the bighorns. Another type is what I call the "droopy" in which the horns come down far below the point of the jaw and never come back to the bridge of the nose. This is a rare type I have seen only in desert bighorns and some rams from Wyoming.

Some of the giant bighorns of Canada often dress out at over 300 lbs. This makes them about the same physical size as the largest mule deer but their horns make them somewhat heavier.

The common, typical, and to me the most spectacular type of head found among the Rocky Mountain and desert bighorns is the close curl. The horns turn up close to the face and as they grow they block the ram's side vision. Such horns are always broomed or "rubbed." Apparently the ram with his wide-angle eyes wants to keep at least one horn rubbed down enough so he can see to the side. A heavily broomed bighorn head with the mass of the base carried far out on the horn and with the points rubbed back until they are round and wide at the tips is this continent's trophy of trophies.

All types of horns are found among all types of North American sheep. The wide spread, the droopy, and the argali-type horns do not block the side vision and hence are seldom broomed and never deliberately rubbed. If the horn tips are broken or broomed it is because they were injured in bumping against rocks, from falls, possibly from fighting. But wherever the sheep hunter finds close-curl heads he will find heads that have deliberately been rubbed against rock to clear the side vision. Because I first encountered heads of this type in Mexico years ago I have always had a weakness for them. Actually only these old rams should be taken. They are past their most active breeding. Their teeth are going, and most of them do not have long to live. Better that their impressive heads decorate trophy rooms than to have them disintegrate on some lonely hillside after the rams have died. Apparently when a ram is 13 years old he has lived out his life span. I have shot several with 13 annual rings on their horns but have only seen one with 14 rings.

Lip curling is as common a practice during breeding season for the bighorn as is the butting of heads with an opponent. After servicing from 40 to 50 ewes, a ram is drained of enough of his strength to make it doubtful sometimes that he will last through the long winter.

Anyone would quickly recognize that arctic and subarctic cousins of the bighorn, the white Dall sheep and the gray-faced, black-bodied Stone sheep found in northern British Columbia, Alaska, and the Yukon were different animals from the brown bighorn, but he would have much more difficulty in telling one sub-species of bighorn from another. Generally speaking there are but two types of bighorn. One group is composed of the long-eared California bighorn originally found in the Coast Range from the Lilloet country of western British Columbia through Washington and Oregon to Southern California. The various desert bighorns of California's Death Valley, Nevada, Lower California, Sonora, Chihuahua, and Arizona are also long-eared and they are smaller sheep than the Rocky Mountain bighorn. Although many of the rams have horns with very large bases, they tend to taper more quickly than do those from the Rockies. What the average sheep hunter would notice, though, is that all the rams in this group tend to be somewhat lighter in color, than the Rocky Mountain sheep, that they have much longer, more pointed ears, and that they are somewhat more lightly built. These sheep are variously classified the Nelsoni of Nevada and the California desert, Cremonbates of the northern part of Lower California and weemsi of the southern end of the peninsula, and Mexicanus of Arizona, Sonora, and southern New Mexico. In general, they are more closely related to the California sheep than they are to the Rocky Mountain bighorn.

The range of true bighorn begins in the Rockies of northern New Mexico and was originally continuous through Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana into the British Columbia and Alberta Rockies. Just where the range of the long-eared, lighter sheep once came in contact with that of the small-eared, heavier sheep no one knows but possibly along the upper Colorado River.

Those who have never had the opportunity to examine an old bighorn have little notion as to how large one can be. They are apt to think they are about the size of domestic sheep, but the various domestic breeds are probably descended from the little red sheep of the Middle East, one of the smallest of all wild sheep. The bighorn of the Alberta and British Columbia Rockies is one of the largest of all wild sheep and not much smaller than the biggest argalis of Central Asia. An old ram is a heavy, massive, chunky animal, with large bones and a broad bottom. In the fall before the rut, after a lazy summer of feasting on juicy grass and drinking the cold, crystal clear water of mountain streams, he gets as fat as a fine beef steer. His flesh is the finest of all wild meat, as good as the best corn-fed beef and with no more wild taste. I have eaten my weight in sheep meat several times over and I never tire of it. Young rams are much more slender than the old fellows from 9 to 14 years old, and the weight of the largest ewes is only about half that of the rams.

H.I.H. Prince Abdorreza Pahlavi of Iran has taken all of the world’s big game. Like O’Connor, the prince rates the bighorn near the top.

Wyoming and Colorado sheep are smaller than the giants of the limestone mountains of Alberta, and the bighorns are still smaller. A few very fat desert rams have been shot that dressed out at around 200 pounds but these are exceptional. Most mature desert rams in good condition will dress out around 150—160 and one weighing 175 is very heavy. I would guess Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming rams would be heavy if they dressed out 200—225. The giant bighorns found along the continental divide in southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia will often dress out at over 300 pounds. The largest bighorns are about the size of the largest mule deer but their massive horns make them somewhat heavier.

When white men first invaded the West they found the brown bighorns wherever there was dry, rough country with areas free from timber, from the first suitable mountains south of the Peace River in British Columbia clear to the tip of Lower California in Mexico and to the barren desert mountains opposite Tiburon Island in Sonora. Most present day sheep hunters think of bighorns as creatures of high timberline country, but in the old days they were found on little buttes far out in the great plains, in the badlands of the Dakotas, in the breaks along the Missouri River, and in canyons that cut through flat country. Wild sheep are very adaptable animals. They don't like heavy forest, flat country, a land of heavy rain, or areas where snow lies deep. Otherwise they aren't particular. Their one essential requirement is access to rough country where in a pinch they can escape predators. I have hunted sheep at 11,000 feet above sea level in Wyoming, at 13,000 feet in the Middle East, and in rocky Sonora hills less than 500 feet above the Gulf of California. The last white sheep I shot was right on the top of a mountain in the Yukon, far above timberline in the subarctic and the last desert bighorn I shot was on a dinky little hill about 300 feet above sea level in Sonora within sight of the blue gulf. They are adaptable and versatile animals. The last Stone sheep I collected was in British Columbia 3,000 feet above timberline and in a snow storm.

When white men first explored it, the brown bighorns were present in the American West in what today seems incredible numbers. Estimates as to their total numbers run as high as 2,500,000! In many areas they were more plentiful than deer and in some they were the only large game animals. In Idaho one Indian tribe called Sheepeaters lived on sheep, just as the plains Indians lived on buffalo.

The range of true Rocky Mountain bighorn (gray area) begins in the Rockies of northern New Mexico and continues into Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and the Alberta Rockies.

But their numbers quickly decreased and they became extinct over wide areas. The hunters got the blame and it is true that overshooting by meat hunters was an important factor. But it was not the only one. Undoubtedly the most important was the overgrazing of the winter range by domestic sheep and cattle. Wild sheep caught from the tame ones diseases from which they had no immunity and died. After they were completely protected they would, in limited areas, build up in numbers until they were too plentiful for their range, overbrowsed it and lie around in their own droppings. Then epidemics would take them off. The famous Terryall herd near Denver, Colorado, died off in 1913, in 1924, and most recently in 1953, when the herd was reduced to 100 from over 800.

Most Western states closed the sheep season at about the turn of the century. With the exception of Wyoming and Idaho, where limited sheep hunting was done, not a legal shot was fired at bighorns in the United States. But in recent years research has shown that the harvesting of old rams cannot possibly do the sheep any harm and probably does the herds good in thinning them down and scattering them. Sheep permits for non-residents can be obtained by drawings in Wyoming, Idaho, and in some areas in Montana. Arizona and Nevada allow a few permits for non-residents. Colorado, which has a good many bighorns restricts permits to residents and these are obtained by drawing. Utah has issued a few resident permits for desert bighorn. Both Washington and Oregon have permitted the taking of a few mature rams from reintroduced stock of the California bighorn. The state of California, which has a good many desert sheep of the Nelson sub-species in mountains centered in and around Death Valley has never had an open season. However, poachers, both head hunters and meat hunters, have taken many sheep there. Most of the bighorns in the United States are found in marginal areas, but they are under pressure even in this rough and barren country from cattlemen, from developers, miners, and lumber interests.

Not many years ago the brown bighorn was plentiful in suitable localities in the Alberta and British Columbia Rockies. However, much of the bighorn winter range was leased out by the British Columbia forestry department some years ago and the starving bighorns forced low by snows died by the hundreds. Access roads for oil exploration, mines and lumbering have been pushed into the Canadian back country. These have made the sheep accessible to the native meat hunter and the people who know the taking of a sheep trophy is a prestigious caper and simply want to be able to say they have shot a ram. These shoot off the young breeding rams that are indifferent trophies. In 1972, much of the Alberta sheep country was closed to non-resident hunters and as I write this there is a movement to close all of the country to the non-resident. The Alberta big game outfitting business is built around the prestigious bighorn and if this great trophy animal is made off limits to non-residents it means the end of outfitting in the province. Some Alberta outfitters have seen the handwriting on the wall, have sold out, and have bought outfits in northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. These they can outfit for Stone and Dall sheep until the same pressures that have operated on the bighorns decimate their thinhorn cousins.

A typical high-country sheep camp may not look like the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, but after a hard day astride a horse and climbing 2,000 feet straight up a rock slide, it can be a mighty welcome sight.

There is no reason why there can't be numerous bighorns in the United States. There are tens of thousands of acres of rough marginal country in the West where bighorns will thrive if they are relieved from the pressures of poaching and grazing by domestic stock. Most of this sheep country is public domain and it would be far more valuable for the production of game and sport hunting than for the production of sheep, goats, and cattle. Even at the present high price of cattle a bighorn on the hill is worth several times as much to the economy as a cow—in license fees, guides and outfitters fees, taxidermy bills, travel, and so on. The problem of the bighorn is primarily one of feed. The well-fed bighorns do well. The poorly-fed sheep on land that has been chewed up and overgrazed by sheep and cattle are prone to any number of diseases that they cannot resist in their weakened condition. The catastrophic decline of the bighorn in the West followed closely on the heels of the introduction of sheep and cattle.

But until steps are taken to preserve range for the bighorn, to set aside more areas where this greatest of trophy animals is preserved from the competition of the hungry cow, from the greed of the land developer, the sheep will inevitably continue to decline.

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