Bighorns Return

Filed in Expert Articles, Wildlife Tours by on November 11, 2013

TWG_story_wildlife03imgIn an annual rite, the Bighorn Sheep return to the valley after spending the summer in the high mountain meadows and craggy precipices of the Gore Range. Some of the Bighorn Sheep’s winter range includes sunny south-facing slopes just out of the valley in East Vail.

The Bighorn Sheep need vertical cliffs, or craggy rock nearby to feel safe. Masters of rock climbing, and the ability to jump over 15 feet vertically, makes Bighorn Sheep a challenging catch for predators. Their main predator is the mountain lion.

The Bighorn Sheep require a multitude of grasses, sedges, and leafy plants for its food sources. The Bighorn’s food contains only a fraction of the nutrients in the winter months. The animals get continually thinner through the winter as they burn through the fat reserves stored from the previous summer.

Bighorn sheep have a set migration pattern and will return to the same place each winter. In the mid 1800’s Bighorn Sheep populations took a hit as cattle and domestic sheep entered the grazing scene. The domestic livestock fed on plants in the valleys that the Bighorn sheep relied on completely. The Bighorns had difficulty adapting and finding alternative winter feeding areas to stave off starvation. To make matters worse, the domestic livestock transmitted previously unknown diseases to the Bighorns.

The Bighorns that we see today are continually adapting. Humans encroach on their winter range by having roads and commercial areas in the valleys. Sunny hillsides are also preferred, in the winter, by humans; and as homes are built on the mountainside, the Bighorns are adversely affected. However, it is interesting to note that Eagle County is 17% private land and 83% public land. This weight toward open space will help not only the Bighorn Sheep, but all of the species which call Eagle County their home.

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Some various nearby Colorado locations where Bighorn Sheep can be viewed are: on the melted-out slopes in East Vail; in Glenwood Canyon; on the Colorado River Road in the canyon areas downstream of Burns; above Twin Lakes on the road up Independence Pass; along the Arkansas River canyons from Buena Vista through Salida; and near Silver Plume on I-70 toward Denver.

Locate them by their tan-colored rumps. Distinguish the rams, with massive full-curled horns, from the ewes which have thinner, less curved horns. Also look for lambs which are typically grouped in with the ewes. Binoculars are useful in viewing and observing the behavior of these impressive, stout, gorgeous animals, the state mammal of Colorado, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep.

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