Although widely distributed across the Rocky Mountains, bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) persist chiefly in small, fragmented populations that are vulnerable to sudden declines as a result of disease, habitat loss, and disruption of their migratory routes due to roads and other human activities. About 10 to 13 interbreeding bands of bighorn sheep occupy steep terrain in the upper Yellowstone River drainage, including habitat that extends more than 20 miles north of the park. These sheep provide visitor enjoyment as well as revenue to local economies through tourism, guiding, and sport hunting. Mount Everts receives the most concentrated use by bighorn sheep year-round.
Number in Yellowstone
329 in the northern Yellowstone area in 2015 (163 counted inside the park).
Where to See
Behavior and Size
From the 1890s to the mid-1960s, the park’s bighorn sheep population fluctuated between 100 and 400. Given the vagaries of weather and disease, bighorn sheep populations of at least 300 are desirable to increase the probability of long-term persistence with minimal loss of genetic diversity. The count reached a high of 487 in 1981, but a keratoconjunctivitis (pinkeye) epidemic caused by Chlamydia reduced the population by 60% the following winter and the population has been slow to recover. Although the temporary vision impairment caused by the infection is rarely fatal for domestic sheep that are fenced and fed, it can result in death for a sheep that must find its forage in steep places.
During the 2016 survey a total of 320 bighorn sheep were observed, including 170 in Montana and 150 in YNP. These results are very similar to the 2015 count (329), but 24% lower than 2014 (421), and 27% lower than the recent high in 2013 (439). In Yellowstone National Park, overall numbers were down 8%.
The 2016 count of 320 bighorn sheep in the upper Yellowstone is the lowest since 2006. During 2005- 2015 the population increased steadily. A decline occurred in 2015 related to an all-age pneumonia event. This year we have observed stable overall numbers and increased lamb recruitment, and no known pneumonia related mortalities. These factors suggest that the population is stabilizing from the disease event. In spite of the 2015 decline, overall bighorn sheep numbers in the Upper Yellowstone remain substantially above the long-term average.
Competition with Other Species
Bighorn sheep populations that winter at high elevations are often small, slow growing, and low in productivity. Competition with elk as a result of dietary and habitat overlaps may have hindered the recovery of this relatively isolated population after the pinkeye epidemic. Rams may be hunted north of the park, but the State of Montana has granted few permits in recent years because of the small population size.
Although wolves occasionally prey on bighorn sheep, the population has increased since wolf reintroduction began in 1995. Longer-term data are needed to show whether sheep abundance may be inversely related to elk abundance on the northern range. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Montana State University, the US Forest Service, and several nongovernmental organizations are cooperating with the National Park Service to study how competition with nonnative mountain goats, which were introduced in the Absaroka Mountains in the 1950s, could affect bighorn sheep there.
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Last updated: August 16, 2017