For Colorado wildlife watchers, there are certain “must see” wildlife that should be on your bucket list – greater sage-grouse viewing in spring, wildflowers in early summer, sandhill cranes in early fall, and bighorn sheep in late fall and early winter. So, that makes this the prime time of the year for viewing bighorns.
For much of the year, bighorns make their home on the steepest cliffs, harshest tundra and the remote and rugged places that many of us can only dream of reaching. Bighorn lambs, yearlings and ewes spend much of their time in nursery groups and the rams often stay in separate bachelor bands. But, from late November through January, both groups gather on common courtship grounds for the annual mating season.
During the mating season or winter rut, bighorns are active throughout the day, which creates outstanding wildlife viewing opportunities. This is also a time of dramatic behavior for bighorns, the battle of the rams. On the courtship grounds, males will follow ewes, constantly testing to see if they are ready for breeding. While competing, rams display their horns, shove and charge at each other, and butt heads with tremendous force. The winners of such contests, usually the largest and most experienced rams, are accepted by ewes as mates.
Thanks to decades of dedicated conservation efforts, Colorado’s iconic bighorn sheep are once again abundant with an estimated statewide population of more than 7,000 animals. Today bighorn sheep are mostly restricted to foothills, canyons and high mountains. They do not pioneer new range or move to new habitats easily. In the last half of the 20th century, sheep management focused on restoring bighorn to their historic range by transplanting some from larger, stronger herds. Wildlife managers emphasize efforts to maintain healthy populations by enhancing habitat and managing disease.
Where to Look
In general, look for bighorn sheep in rocky terrain with good visibility and an uphill escape route. They tend to avoid wooded areas where their vision is limited because “sight and flight” are their defenses from predators. Bighorns choose grassy south- and west-facing slopes, particularly in winter, where sun and wind keep grasses clear from snow. This makes both grazing and travel easier. For anyone that lives in the Denver area or that is up for a little adventure, a trip to Waterton Canyon will provide a great viewing opportunity.
For new watchers, make sure you take an ethical approach – Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Watchable Wildlife program offers tips and advice for rewarding, safe and responsible wildlife viewing. Animals have a sense of what is a safe distance between themselves and other animals that might pose a threat (including humans!). If you intrude into what the animal(s) consider a safe distance, their behavior will change and they can become stressed, unnecessarily use energy, or face loss of time to rest or feed. Encroaching on their space can also trigger aggressive behavior. Never try to approach wildlife when they are clearly trying to move away and maintain safe separation.
Support CPW’s Conservation Efforts
Habitat loss is one of the leading issues impacting the survival of fish and wildlife for future generations. Purchases of the Habitat Stamp provide the core funds for the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Program (CWHP). The program provides a means for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to work with private landowners, local governments, and conservation organizations to protect important fish and wildlife habitat and provide places for people to enjoy our wildlife heritage. To learn more about the Colorado Wildlife Habitat Program and how you can support wildlife by purchasing a Habitat Stamp, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
Article and photos by Doug Skinner. Doug is an editor for Colorado Outdoors Online and is a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.