Bighorn Sheep of the San Juan Mountains

Historically bighorn sheep were once among the most abundant wildlife in the American West. From millions of these marvelous creatures at the onset of the 19th century, bighorn populations declined with westward expansion of human populations, the introduction of domestic sheep and to a lesser extent hunting. But with aggressive restoration and protection efforts, bighorn populations are growing in Colorado and elsewhere in the West. One of the largest populations of Colorado’s bighorns roam in the vast Weminuche wilderness of the San Juans. Almost 500,000 acres, the Weminuche wilderness is located northeast of Durango. Renowned for its rugged high peaks, pristine alpine lakes and expanses of tundra and mountain meadows, the Weminuche is home to Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep. Numbering less than about 500, bighorn herds are a true native population.

Bighorn sheep thrive in high elevation meadows found throughout the San Juan Mountains. Unfortunately, domestic sheep, that carry a number of deadly pathogens, roam in the same areas. Respiratory disease spread by sheep can decimate entire herds of bighorn sheep. Great efforts are being made in Colorado and elsewhere in the West to prevent domestic sheep from grazing near bighorn sheep. For example, in exchange for waiving their grazing permits, the National Wildlife Federation is providing owners of sheep herds a fair, market-based compensation. Among these high priority bighorn herds being protected are Weminuche bighorns.

Big Horn Sheep

The wild beauty and massive headgear of bighorn sheep earned them the distinction of state animal of Colorado and symbol of Colorado Parks & Wildlife. Through much of the year rams live in bands or groups. Courtship time reveals their most dramatic behavior – the battle of the rams! Competing rams display horns, shove, charge and butt heads to win their contests. Otherwise males follow ewes constantly testing to see if they are ready for breeding. And the largest rams usually are accepted as mates by ewes.

Bighorn sheep are very social creatures. Ewes, lambs and very young animals live in nursery bands. During mating season, late fall through early winter, these groups join each other. Even newborn lambs can follow their mothers over rugged mountain terrain within a few days of birth. Watching lambs is one of the joys of sheep viewing. Born in May or June, summer is the best time to spot lamb babies, playing, nursing and following their mothers. Otherwise lambs can be seen throughout most of the year in nursery groups along with yearlings.