Desert Bighorn Sheep

A desert bighorn ram looking out over a redrock canyon.
Desert Bighorn Sheep

VIP Carla DeKalb

Desert bighorn sheep are among the most intriguing mammals of canyon country. They are wary of human contact and blend so well into the terrain they inhabit that sightings are a special event. Once in danger of becoming extinct, the desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) have made a comeback in parts of western Colorado. A small population was reintroduced to Colorado National Monument in 1979. Over 230 sheep have been sighted and monitored across the public lands of the Grand Valley, including Colorado National Monument and the neighboring McInnis Canyons wilderness area.

A desert bighorn ewe looks down from her perch on a rock.
Desert Bighorn Ewe

Sally Bellacqua

Unlike their Rocky Mountain bighorn cousins, desert bighorn have adapted to hot, dry climates. They have longer legs, lighter coats, and smaller bodies. They can live without water for days, losing body weight in the process. Their diet of shrubs, grasses, brome, fescue, clover phlox, and cinquefoil supplies a good portion of their water needs. Desert bighorn will drink water from potholes in the rocks and from the seasonal streams in the monument. Easily accessible water is a scarce resource in this desert environment.

To find food and water, desert bighorn can maneuver through the steep red rock canyons. They have flexible hooves equipped with soft songy pads for clinging to rocks. Their agility helps them to escape predators, such as mountain lions.

Two big desert bighorn rams butting heads.
Bighorn Rams

VIP Carla DeKalb

The rut for desert bighorn sheep takes place from August through the early fall. The bachelor herds that form during the winter and spring break up, and rams search for ewes while keeping a sharp eye out for each other. Rams are fiercely competitive in gathering herds and fighting for mating rights. They square up with each other, charge, and bash their heads together. Fortunately, a ram's thick skull helps to cushion his brain from the impact of butting heads with other sheep. Listen carefully, you can sometimes hear the loud crack of their horns hitting each other from a good distance away.

Desert bighorn ewe and her lamb touching noses
Desert Bighorn Lamb and Ewe

VIP Carla DeKalb

Desert bighorn ewes have smaller horns that curve backwards, instead of forming a curl like the rams. They are fiercely protective of their young, and use their sharp hooves for defense. A ewe gives birth anytime from February through early April after a gestation that lasts around six months. The babies, called lambs, can walk shortly after being born. Lambs will stay with the herd, learning where to find food and water from their mother and the other ewes.

Young rams also stay with the main herd, eventually splitting off into bachelor herds when they are a few years old. Rams typically stay in bachelor herds during the spring and summer, rejoining the ewes for the rut. If all goes well, they can live to be 10 to 14 years old.
Petroglyphs depicting bighorn sheep on a red rock from Utah
Bighorn Petroglyphs from Utah

Sally Bellacqua

Bighorn sheep are common in American Indian rock art, an indication of their presence and importance in indigenous cultures. Desert bighorn are an important game animal and resource for the Ute people. Accounts from European explorers in the late 1600s estimate that more than two million desert bighorn once roamed the Southwest.

However, by the late 1800s bighorn sheep had disappeared or declined in many areas. European livestock brought diseases, including scabies (an ear mite) and anthrax (a bacterial disease), both introduced by domestic sheep. Herd after herd of wild bighorn sheep proved to be vulnerable to the diseases, and were decimated by them. Bighorn were also killed by early explorers, colonizers, settlers, and trophy hunters for their horns and meat.

A bighorn ewe and ram walking together.
Desert Bighorn Ewe and Ram

VIP Carla DeKalb

Look for desert bighorn sheep along ledges at the base of canyon walls and above steep talus slopes. Desert bighorn are commonly seen along Rim Rock Drive in Fruita Canyon, near Balanced Rock View, and year-round in Kodels, Monument, and Wedding Canyons, which require hikes varying from 2-12 miles round-trip.

You can help protect desert bighorn by observing them from a distance. When you're driving, watch out for bighorn who are grazing near the road, or even walking down the middle of it. Survival is tough in the desert, and bighorn can be stressed by people or vehicles being too close. Be especially careful to give them extra space during the rut and whenever you encounter ewes with new lambs.

One final tip for spotting bighorn: while you're exploring the monument, make sure you look up! Desert bighorn can be seen on rocky ledges near Rim Rock Drive and in the monument's canyons.


More Desert Bighorn Sheep Info from NPS

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    Last updated: April 9, 2024

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