Rocky Mountain bighorns are among areas most prized species

Posted: Thursday, October 25, 2001

TWIN FALLS, Idaho -- The wild sheep of North America are among the most beautiful and sought-after trophies by sportsmen.

Idaho is fortunate to have the Rocky Mountain and California bighorns within its borders. These two subspecies were the original stock that inhabited this area.

The Rocky Mountain sheep survived in small numbers by the early 1900s after being market hunted almost to extinction and devastated by disease from domestic livestock.

The California subspecies was located along the canyon of the Snake River drainage and desert country. The last one was killed near Ibex Peak in the South Hills in early 1900. They have since been reintroduced by live trapping and transplanting. There are now populations in the Jarbidge and Bruneau drainages as well as the South Hills.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is a tan, blocky animal, with a large ram weighing close to 250 pounds. Their curling horns distinguish them from the antlered deer and elk.

Horns continue to grow annually, and a trophy may have a 40-inch curl with 15- to 16-inch diameter base by the time they are 10 years of age. Ewes also have horns, but they are much smaller and sickle-shaped. Each year of growth is shown by a ring on their horns.

One of the most spectacular aspects of their life cycle is the fight for dominance by the mature rams.

Rams approach each other, rear up on their hind legs and crash their massive horns together. This sound can be heard up to a half mile away. After striking their opponent, they often will shake their heads like a punch-drunk fighter. Sometimes they miss the horns and severe damage such as a broken nose or horn, or eye or brain damage can occur.

The winner may quickly breed a nearby ewe several times, then wander off seeking other conquests. No ram ''owns'' a ewe. Once the rut is finished, the rams revert to their male chauvinistic ways, disregarding the ewes entirely and joining in groups of their own once more. Normally, they stay separated on winter ranges.

Six months from the time the ewes were bred, the lambs are dropped. A single lamb is the rule, although there may be twins.

When it is time for her lamb to be born, each ewe leaves her group and seeks a high ledge or foot of a cliff high up, where there is protection from weather and predators. Ground predators, such as coyotes and wolves, have a difficult time under these conditions. However, the golden eagle can take some lambs in rough terrain since they only weigh about eight pounds at birth.

After about two weeks, she rejoins the band with her young. The lambs are rambunctious and play rigorously. Lambs develop rapidly, nibbling at grasses, and are partially weaned within a month. Horns grow quickly and the rams have a half curl by breeding age three.

Wild sheep are known for their tremendous eyesight, which has been equated with a pair of 8-power binoculars. Many a hunter who shows himself over a ridgeline a mile from his quarry has been surprised he's already been spotted. This eyesight and resulting flight from danger is their main protection.

Food habits vary with the terrain, but grasses are the mainstay of these grazing animals.

Sheep hunters in Idaho must first draw a controlled hunt permit, which are restricted in number and highly sought after. The state is divided with the Rocky Mountain subspecies found north of I-84 and the California subspecies south of the interstate. A person is allowed one each of these subspecies in a lifetime. All of the hunts are for three-quarter curl rams or better.

Hunting techniques vary, but the standard approach is selecting good sheep habitat and glassing for the animals. Once a legal ram is located, then a stalk is planned to place the hunter within range.

Sheep meat is considered a delicacy, and a hunter is required by law to carry out the meat as well as the trophy cape and horns. Many of these hunts start in August, and a sportsman must plan to take care of his animal quickly.

The future of sheep hunting in Idaho has been dampened somewhat in recent years with losses due to disease, illegal poaching and changes in habitat. The Hell's Canyon herd along the Snake River has been particularly hard hit.

The North American Sheep Foundation, a private conservation organization, has been instrumental in raising money to reinstitute sheep and preserve habitat in the United States.

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