The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep is Colorado’s state mammal and the main feature of Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s logo. Despite the prominence of the bighorn on publications, marketing, and letterhead, today’s Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep herds persist in just a few pockets in their aboriginal form. Of those native, unaltered herds, the Tarryall herd stands head and shoulders above the others in its prominence as the progenitor of more sheep herds through translocations than any other.
Colorado has only 18 native herds that have never received a translocation and many of those have been the source for other successful transplants and supplements. Bighorns from native herds like the North Collegiates, Pikes Peak, Kenosha Pass and Dome Rock have also been used to recreate herds that have been lost to time and tragedy. The descendants of those herds cannot come close to what the descendants of Tarryall can claim. The Trickle Mountain, Basalt, Almont Triangle, Rampart, Cebolla, Georgetown, Upper Poudre, and Grant herds all had Tarryall blood in their veins before being used in their own transplants.
The literature on sheep research is littered with unsuccessful transplants, but the Trickle Mountain herd has been the source herd for as many successful transplants as Tarryall. Since 1972, 21 transplants have come from Trickle Mountain, but Tarryall sheep were successfully transplanted there in 1951. The Georgetown herd may be Colorado’s most visible bighorn sheep herd, as they are often seen within feet of I70 near Georgetown Lake. That herd received an influx of 33 Tarryall sheep in 1945 and has been used for numerous transplants beginning in 1987.
Tarryall’s bighorn sheep offspring can be found in Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, Arizona, Nevada, Nebraska and Utah. These sheep and their heirs have been leveraged with other states in trades for desert bighorn sheep and mountain goats since transplants began. Colorado’s first mountain goats were the result of a trade with Montana for Tarryall bighorns in 1947. Some of those first mountain goats were introduced to Mount Evans, others went to the Raggeds, the Needles and the Gore Range. Colorado’s second desert bighorn sheep reintroduction near Colorado National Monument in 1980 is the result of a trade to Arizona and Nevada for Tarryall Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Three of the transplants to the captive research herd in Fort Collins run by Colorado Parks and Wildlife and Colorado State University came from Grant, whose herd was supplemented by 16 Tarryall sheep in 1945.
Today, the Tarryall herd is merely a shadow of its former self. Just like the ghost town of Tarryall City, the herd’s fortunes have been tied to the mining industry. The bighorn population has dwindled to double digits from a height of nearly 1,000 animals when wildlife managers readily admitted the herd was overpopulated in the 1940s and 1950s. The massive growth in population was likely due to a combination of unintentional efforts by miners and intensive efforts by law enforcement. The miners certainly market hunted bighorn sheep, contributing to their early declines, but they also cleared Tarryall of vast amounts of timber, converting dense forests to a more suitable open sheep habitat. In 1883, when sheep hunting was banned by the State Legislature, the excessive, unregulated killing of sheep declined rapidly, even before the first state game wardens as local constables were able to enforce the ban on sheep hunting. As the gold deposits dried up and the miners left the mountain, the forest regrew, swallowing up the once open mountainsides and rocky outcroppings.
Decimation doesn’t come close to describing what has happened to this herd. Between disease outbreaks and habitat loss, the ancient Roman punishment of killing one-tenth of a cohort is nothing compared to the loss of 90% of a herd in 50 years. Time, tears, and toil will tell us if the once-great herd can blossom again, but Tarryall’s legacy as a founder of some of the most productive sheep herds lives on.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife is celebrating its 125th Anniversary throughout 2022 to honor the legacy of our agency and the talented staff who make fulfilling CPW’s important mission possible. For more stories like this, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s 125th Anniversary web page!
Written by Mark Richman. Mark is a district wildlife manager in Fruita, Colorado.