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The bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is a species of sheep native to North America. The species is named for its large horns. A pair of horns might weigh up to 14 kg (30 lb); the sheep typically weigh up to 143 kg (315 lb). Recent genetic testing indicates three distinct subspecies of Ovis canadensis, one of which is endangered: O. c. sierrae. Sheep originally crossed to North America over the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia; the population in North America peaked in the millions, and the bighorn sheep entered into the mythology of Native Americans. By 1900, the population had crashed to several thousand, due to diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting.


O. montana <small>Cuvier</small><ref>

</ref> }} The bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis)<ref>

</ref> is a species of sheep in North America<ref name=MSW3>

</ref> named for its large horns. These horns can weigh up to

, while the sheep themselves weigh up to


</ref> Recent genetic testing indicates three distinct subspecies of Ovis canadensis, one of which is endangered: O. c. sierrae. Sheep originally crossed to North America over the Bering land bridge from Siberia: the population in North America peaked in the millions, and the bighorn sheep entered into the mythology of Native Americans. By 1900, the population had crashed to several thousand, due to diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting.<ref>

</ref> Conservation efforts (in part by the Boy Scouts) have restored the population.

Taxonomy and genetics

in Anza-Borrego State Park]]

Ovis canadensis is one of three species of mountain sheep in North America and Siberia; the other two species being Ovis dalli, which includes Dall sheep and Stone's sheep, and the Siberian snow sheep Ovis nivicola. Wild sheep crossed the Bering land bridge from Siberia during the Pleistocene (about 750,000 years ago) and subsequently spread through western North America as far south as Baja California and northwestern mainland Mexico.<ref name=“cowan”/> Divergence from their closest Asian ancestor (snow sheep) occurred about 600,000 years ago.<ref name=“ramey”/> In North America, wild sheep have diverged into two extant species—Dall sheep, which occupy Alaska and northwestern Canada, and bighorn sheep, which range from southern Canada to Mexico.<ref name=fws>

</ref> However, the status of these species is questionable given that hybridization has occurred between them in their recent evolutionary history.<ref>



In 1940, Cowan split the species into seven subspecies:<ref name=“cowan”>


  • Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, O. c. canadensis, are found from British Columbia to Arizona.
  • California bighorn sheep, O. c. californiana, are found from British Columbia south to California and east to North Dakota. The definition of this subspecies has been updated (see below).
  • Nelson's bighorn sheep, O. c. nelsoni, the most common desert bighorn sheep, ranges from California through Arizona.
  • Mexican bighorn sheep, O. c. mexicana, range from Arizona and New Mexico south to Sonora and Chihuahua.
  • Peninsular bighorn sheep O. c. cremnobates, occur in the Peninsular Ranges of California and Baja California.
  • Weems' bighorn sheep, O. c. weemsi, also are found in Baja California.
  • Audubon's bighorn sheep, O. c. auduboni, occurred in North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Nebraska. This subspecies has been extinct since 1925.

However, starting in 1993, Ramey and colleagues,<ref name=“ramey”>


</ref> using DNA testing, have shown this division into seven subspecies is largely illusory. The taxonomy of Ovis canadensis continues to be refined as new genetic and morphologic data become available, but most scientists currently recognize these subspecies of bighorn:<ref>

</ref><ref name=“Wehausen05” />

  • Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (O. c. canadensis), occupying the U.S. and Canadian Rocky Mountains and the northwestern U.S.
  • Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (O. c. sierrae), formerly California bighorn sheep,<ref name=“Wehausen05”>

    </ref> a genetically distinct subspecies that only occurs in the Sierra Nevada

  • Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni), occurring throughout the southwestern desert regions of U.S. and Mexico.

In addition, two populations are currently considered endangered by the United States government:<ref>


  • Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep (O. c. sierrae),
  • Peninsular bighorn sheep, a distinct population segment of desert bighorn sheep (O. c. nelsoni).


Bighorn sheep are named for the large, curved horns borne by the rams (males). Ewes (females) also have horns, but they are shorter with less curvature.<ref name=faq>

</ref> They range in color from light brown to grayish or dark, chocolate brown, with a white rump and lining on the backs of all four legs. Males typically weigh

, are

tall at the shoulder, and

long from the nose to the tail. Females are typically


tall and


</ref> Male bighorn sheep have large horn cores, enlarged cornual and frontal sinuses, and internal bony septa. These adaptations serve to protect the brain by absorbing the impact of clashes.<ref name=“Geist 1971”>

</ref> Bighorn sheep have preorbital glands on the anterior corner of each eye, inguinal glands in the groin, and pedal glands on each foot. Secretions from these glands may support dominance behaviors.<ref name=“Geist 1971”/>

Bighorns from the Rocky Mountains are relatively large, with males that occasionally exceed

and females that exceed

. In contrast, Sierra Nevada bighorn males weigh up to only

and females to

. Males' horns can weigh up to

, as much as the rest of the bones in the male's body.<ref name=diversity>


Natural history


in Glacier National Park, Montana]] The Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep occupy the cooler mountainous regions of Canada and the United States. In contrast, the desert bighorn sheep subspecies are indigenous to the hot desert ecosystems of the Southwestern United States. Bighorn sheep generally inhabit alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes, and foothill country near rugged, rocky cliffs and bluffs.<ref name=diversity/> Since bighorn sheep cannot move though deep snow, they prefer drier slopes, where the annual snowfall is less than about 60 inches a year.<ref name=diversity/> A bighorn's winter range usually lies at

in elevation, while its summer range is tends to be at


</ref> Bighorn sheep are highly susceptible to certain diseases carried by domestic sheep, such as scabies and pneumonia; additional mortality occurs as a result of accidents involving rock falls or falling off cliffs (a hazard of living in steep, rugged terrain). Bighorns are well adapted to climbing steep terrain where they seek cover from predators. Predation primarily occurs with lambs, which are hunted by coyotes, bobcats, lynxes and golden eagles. Bighorn sheep of all ages are threatened by bears, wolves and especially cougars, which are perhaps best equipped with the agility to prey on them in uneven, rocky habitats.<ref name=faq/><ref name=yellowstone/><ref>

</ref> They are considered good indicators of land health because the species is sensitive to many human-induced environmental problems. In addition to their aesthetic value, bighorn sheep are considered desirable game animals by hunters.

Bighorn sheep graze on grasses and browse shrubs, particularly in fall and winter, and seek minerals at natural salt licks.<ref name=yellowstone>

</ref> Females tend to forage and walk, possibly to avoid predators and protect lambs,<ref name=“Ruckstuhl 1998”/> while males tend to eat and then rest and ruminate, which lends to more effective digestion and greater increase in body size.<ref name=“Ruckstuhl 1998”>


Social structure and reproduction

Bighorn sheep live in large flocks, and do not typically follow a single leader ram, unlike the mouflon, the ancestor of the domestic sheep, which has a strict dominance hierarchy. Prior to the mating season or “rut”, the rams attempt to establish a dominance hierarchy to determine access to ewes for mating. During the prerut period, most of the characteristic horn clashing occurs between rams, although this behavior may occur to a limited extent throughout the year.<ref>

</ref> Rams' horns can frequently exhibit damage from repeated clashes.<ref name=yellowstone/> Females exhibit a stable, nonlinear hierarchy that correlates with age.<ref name=“Hass 1991”>

</ref> Females may fight for high social status when they are integrated into the hierarchy at one to two years of age.<ref name=“Hass 1991”/>

Rocky Mountain bighorn rams employ at least three different courting strategies.<ref name=“Hogg 1984”>

</ref> The most common and successful is the tending strategy, in which a ram follows and defends an estrous ewe.<ref name=“Hogg 1984”/> Tending takes considerable strength and dominance, so ewes are more receptive to tending males, feeling they are the most fit. Another tactic is coursing, which is when rams fight for an already tended ewe.<ref name=“Hogg 1984”/> Ewes typically avoid coursing males so the strategy is not effective. Rams will also employ a blocking strategy. They will prevent a ewe from accessing tending areas before she even goes into estrus.<ref name=“Hogg 1984”/>

Bighorn ewes have a six-month gestation. In temperate climates, the peak of the rut occurs in November with one, or rarely two, lambs being born in May. Most births occur in the first two weeks of the lambing period. Pregnant ewes of the Rocky Mountains migrate to alpine areas in spring, presumably to give birth in areas safer from predation,<ref name=“Ruckstuhl 1998 again”/> but are away from areas with good quality forage.<ref name=“Ruckstuhl 1998 again”>

</ref> Lambs born earlier in the season are more likely to survive than lambs born later.<ref name=“Bianchet 1988”>

</ref> Lambs born late may not have access to sufficient milk, as their mothers are lactating at a time when food quality is lower.<ref name=“Bianchet 1988”/> Newborn lambs weigh from

and can walk within hours. The lambs are then weaned when they reach four to six months old. The lifespan of rams is typically 9–12 years, and 10–14 years for ewes.<ref name=faq/>

Relationship with humans

, USA; a common theme in glyphs from the desert southwest]] Two hundred years ago, bighorn sheep were widespread throughout the western US, Canada, and northern Mexico. Some estimates placed their population at over 2 million. By around 1900, hunting, competition from ranching, and diseases had decreased the population to several thousand. A program of reintroductions, natural parks, and reduced hunting, together with a decrease in domesticated sheep near the end of World War II, allowed the bighorn sheep to make a comeback. In 2009, the California Department of Fish and Game issued 21 permits for the hunting of bighorn sheep, and 19 permits for the 2010–11 hunting season.<ref>California DFG 2010 – 2011 Bighorn Sheep Tag Quotas and Season Dates. Retrieved on 2011-09-16.</ref>


Boy Scouts

In 1936, the Arizona Boy Scouts mounted a state-wide campaign to save the bighorn sheep. The Scouts first became interested in the sheep through the efforts of Major Frederick Russell Burnham, the noted conservationist who has been called the “Father of Scouting”.<ref name=“petervanwyk”>

</ref> Burnham observed that fewer than 150 of these sheep still lived in the Arizona mountains. He called George F. Miller, then scout executive of the boy scout council headquartered in Phoenix, with a plan to save the sheep. Burnham put it this way, “I want you to save this majestic animal, not only because it is in danger of extinction, but of more importance, some day it might provide domestic sheep with a strain to save them from disaster at the hands of a yet unknown virus.”<ref name=“desertmagazine1978”/>

Several other prominent Arizonans joined the movement, and a “save the bighorns” poster contest was started in schools throughout the state. Burnham provided prizes and appeared in store windows across Arizona. The contest-winning bighorn emblem was made into neckerchief slides for the 10,000 boy scouts, and talks and dramatizations were given at school assemblies and on radio. The National Wildlife Federation, the Izaak Walton League, and the National Audubon Society also joined the effort.<ref name=“desertmagazine1978”/>

These efforts led to the establishment of two bighorn game ranges in Arizona: Kofa National Wildlife Refuge and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. On January 18, 1939, over

were set aside and a civilian conservation corps side camp was set up to develop high mountain waterholes for the sheep. The desert bighorn sheep is now the official mascot for the Arizona Boy Scouts.<ref name=“desertmagazine1978”>


In culture


Bighorn sheep were among the most-admired animals of the Apsaalooka (Crow) people, and what is today called the Bighorn Mountain Range was central to the Apsaalooka tribal lands. In the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area book, storyteller Old Coyote describes a legend related to the bighorn sheep. A man possessed by evil spirits attempts to kill his heir by pushing the young man over a cliff, but the victim is saved by getting caught in trees. Rescued by bighorn sheep, the man takes the name of their leader, Big Metal. The other sheep grant him power, wisdom, sharp eyes, sure-footedness, keen ears, great strength, and a strong heart. Big Metal returns to his people with the message that the Apsaalooka people will survive only so long as the river winding out of the mountains is known as the Bighorn River.<ref>


Bighorn sheep are hunted for their meat and horns, which are used in ceremonies, as food, and as hunting trophies. They also serve as a source of ecotourism, as tourists come to see the bighorn sheep in their native habitat.

The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is the provincial mammal of Alberta and the state animal of Colorado and as such is incorporated into the symbol for the Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife.<ref>


Bighorn sheep were once known by the scientific identification “argali” or “argalia” due to assumption that they were the same animal as the Asiatic argali (Ovis ammon).<ref>

</ref> Lewis and Clark recorded numerous sightings of Ovis canadensis in the journals of their exploration—sometimes using the name argalia. In addition, they recorded the use of bighorn sheep by the Shoshone in making bows.<ref>

</ref> William Clark's Track Map produced after the expedition in 1814 indicated a tributary of the Yellowstone River named Argalia Creek and a tributary of the Missouri River named Argalia River, both in what is today Montana. Neither of these tributaries retained these names, however. The Bighorn River, another tributary of the Yellowstone, and its tributary stream, the Little Bighorn River were both indicated on Clark's map and did retain their names, the latter being the namesake of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.<ref>



bighorn_sheep.txt · Last modified: 2020/03/12 18:32 (external edit)