Bighorn Sheep in Colorado
Although the numbers of Rocky Mountain bighorns (Ovis canadensis) and desert bighorns (Ovis canadensis nelsoni) in Colorado are considered to be extremely low, I've been able to see and photograph them a number of times. There are several herds within a day trip from my home base of Colorado Springs and they can at times be very cooperative with the photographer.
Colorado Springs has its own resident herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, thanks to a long-ago truck breakdown while 14 sheep were being transported from the Pikes Peak herd. To reduce stress on the animals following the breakdown, they were released near Green Mountain Falls with the expectation they would return to their previous range. However, the sheep chose a different direction, finally settling in Queen's Canyon and Garden of the Gods in and near Colorado Springs. The herd, now called the Rampart Range herd, has flourished
over the past seven decades to the point that some are regularly relocated to other parts of the state to augment struggling herds.
Every February, the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center in Colorado Springs hosts Bighorn Sheep Day (in 2022, it will be held on February 19). Thousands of visitors can have the opportunity to participate in presentations and games, as well as to see the Rampart Range herd, which is frequently found near the visitor center in winter.
Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep have very stocky, muscular bodies and look much larger than their actual diminutive height, which can be only about 3 feet at the shoulder. However, don't underestimate them, since a full-grown ram can weigh over 300 pounds, and of course, there are those horns! A ram's horns can weigh over 30 pounds by themselves. They have excellent senses of sight, hearing and smell, and their tough but spongy hooves are wonderfully adapted to their steep and rocky preferred habitat.
South of Colorado Springs, on Highway 50 west of Canon City is Bighorn Sheep Canyon along the Arkansas River. This rugged river canyon - very popular with whitewater rafters - also has a resident herd of Rocky Mountain bighorns. These sheep can often be seen near the highway, sometimes grazing right on the shoulder of the road. We've seen them most frequently within a mile on either side of the Pinnacle Rock turnout, usually on the steep, rugged hillsides above the river. They can be hard to see because they blend so well with the color of their habitat, especially when they're bedded down and relaxing . A number of sheep here, and from the herd found along Shelf Road in Teller County have been tagged and radio collared for monitoring purposes.
If you visit the Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction and Fruita on the western side of the state, you'll likely be able to view the desert bighorn sheep that live in and near the monument. Desert bighorns are a subspecies of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep; smaller-bodied, they also have smaller and lighter horns, and longer legs. They're uniquely adapted to their arid habitat and are able to go long periods without water, often finding enough moisture in the grasses, forbs and cacti that make up the bulk of their diet to sustain them. I feel privileged to have seen and photographed these amazing animals so often.
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