Rocky Mountain Bighorn Facts

world record rocky mountain bighorn sheep

Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep, (also known as bighorn sheep, a name given to them because of their large horns) are one of three different species of mountain sheep found in Siberia and North America. Wild sheep in North America actually crossed over from Siberia on the Bering land bridge over 700,000 years ago during the Pleistocene period; from there they traveled through Alaska, North America and as far South as Mexico where the Desert Bighorn lives. Bighorns occupy the Northwestern U.S. and the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep are the largest subspecies of North American sheep.

Rocky Mountains are much larger than their desert and Northern relatives, the stone sheep and the dall sheep, reaching weights of up to five hundred pounds. They have several different color variations from light brown to dark brown and even gray. They prefer mountain slopes with lots of grass, alpine meadows in the high country near mountain goats, always hanging out near rocky, rugged bluffs and cliffs. Avoiding deep snow, they seek out snow free exposures or lower country when winter hits.

The Bighorn Rut is a Spectacle

There are currently about 70,000 bighorn sheep in North America. In November or December when the rut takes place, two males will battle for mating rights by turning towards each other, rearing up on their hind legs and lunging forward at up to 40 miles per hours. The loud crack from their heads and horns colliding can be heard up to a mile away.

Bighorn Sheep were Important to many Native American Tribes

Sheep Eater Indians
Sheepeater Indians

The Crow have a legend of a man who was possessed by evil spirits.

He attempted to kill his son by pushing him over the edge of a cliff. The young man got caught in the trees and was saved by bighorn sheep, and took the name of their leader, Big Metal. He was given power, wisdom, great vision, strength, a strong heart, keen ears and sure footedness. Big Metal prophesied to his people that they would live as long as the Bighorn River kept its name. 

Other’s known as the “Sheep Eaters” got their name because bighorn sheep were a big part of their diet.

This was largely in part because they inhabited the same environment high in the mountains. Even during the winter, they would stay in the same areas as the sheep. The Sheep Eater’s, also known as Tukadeka, were expert craftsman famous for their extremely powerful bows. These bows are rumored to be capable of shooting an arrow straight through a buffalo. They would build wooden fences as wings to drive the sheep into narrow corrals where they could harvest them. These amazing people disappeared because of diseases like smallpox. Ironically, this is around the same time disease from domestic sheep almost drove bighorn sheep herds to the brink of extinction.

They Made their Bows out of Sheep Horn

Bow made from bighorn sheep horn
Bow made from bighorn sheep horn.

But getting back to the bows, they would soak the horns in hot springs in order to soften them, and  beginning with the head and skull, slowly achieve reversing the curl. Then they would straighten and dry the horns. After which they coupled the two straightened horns together with sinew and hide glue. The bow was finished by rubbing the sinew and horn with a buffalo rib to give it shine. Wrapping the tips with sinew to hold the string in place, they would coat the sinew back with burnt gypsum mixed with hide glue to whiten it. Many of these bows would have melted pitch rubbed over the sinew for waterproofing, and most would have a buckskin handle. These amazing works of art were usually about 32 inches long and commanded the hefty purchase price of about ten horses.

Qualifications for Boone and Crockett

In order to qualify for the Boone and Crockett all-time records book, a  Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep must score 180 inches net. There are 1,577 all-time entries scoring 180 or bigger; 46 percent of them from Montana and 21 percent from Alberta. Montana also claims 52 of the top 100 all-time entries. Alberta has six of the top ten entries with Montana making up the other four.

In the last five years, though, nine of the top ten entries came from Montana with only one from Alberta. Six of the ten largest Rocky Mountain sheep were picked up and not harvested.

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