By Gary Gray
Late December is when the Bighorn rut winds down here in Colorado.
I’ve taken a lot of photographs of bighorn this year, but I wouldn’t call it the best year on record for great shots. Weather cycles have played a big role in limiting accessibility to these wild critters.
Colorado’s bighorn rut normally begins in mid to late October and can be productive, or reproductive, up through the last week of December. In Colorado’s high country, one can normally count on it snowing a few times during this period. This year, not so much snow. A few minor storms but nothing accumulated in bighorn country and as a result the bighorn have stayed at the higher elevations, away from public access. Since the terrain they like to inhabit is generally very steep and rocky, getting to them up high isn’t a simple task.
When it snows, the bighorn will move to lower elevations to find food. They prefer to hang out on steep, southern facing slopes that have an open grassy area at the base of the slope. As the snow accumulates higher up, they move to these areas where accumulations of snow are only a few inches. This makes it easier for them to punch through the white stuff and find the grass. They will also move towards roads where they can get to the salts and other minerals that can be found accumulating. It’s not uncommon to find bighorn standing along side the main highways, licking the ground to get those minerals.
Bighorn are always conscious of their exposure to predators as well. They like these open grassy areas at the base of steep hills because they can graze on the grass with an easy escape route back up the hill. If there’s grass on top of the hill, they won’t go lower to look for it.
While the weather patterns can vary from year to year, the rut patterns don’t change all that much.
From a photographic standpoint, there are a number of “holy grail” shots that one looks for.
At the top of the list is the ritual combat between mature males. The two rams will find a suitable spot on a hillside and coax one another into combat by standing head to head, then separating by about 20 feet and then charging one another head first. Those massive horns and thick skulls collide like bowling balls shot from a canon. The sound can be heard echoing across the hills and valleys for great distances. I’ve personally witnessed this ritual combat many times, but it is very rare that it occurs in a location that is easily photographed. By mid-November, the stronger rams have established their dominance. This year, my observations of this behavior were few and the photos never materialized. Luck of the draw.
Once active mating begins, I look for the mating rituals between the dominant rams and the ewes in their groups. A typical family herd can be between 10-30 bighorn, with one or two dominant rams, mid range rams, mature ewes and younger animals all congregating together. The younger rams in the herds will continue sparing and it’s possible to capture this combat, however, it’s not likely these guys will be successful in mating as the older rams will protect their ewes and challenge any potential suitor.
The gestation period for ewes is around 177 days, which works out to be about 5-6 months. During the winter months, the ewes will congregate together in family herds along with youngsters and yearlings. These groups can be as large as 100 animals. After a long, cold winter of pregnancy, the pregnant ewes will give birth to a single lamb in April or May of the following year. The rams break off from the family groups after mating and hang together in small groups of 3-6 animals on average, as do the
By late spring, as the snow melts off in the mountains, the bighorn are again accessible so it’s not uncommon to find them at high elevations from June through September. The mature rams break off from the family groups and hang with one another and the ewes and younger animals are in their own separate groups.
Bighorn are plentiful along the Front Range of Colorado. I’ve found them in the Collegiate Peaks, Poudre River Canyon, Big Thompson Canyon, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mt. Evans, Waterton Canyon, Bailey area, Grant and Guanella Pass and as far south as Colorado Springs and Garden of the Gods. One of the most accessible areas along the Front Range is the I-70 corridor toward near Dumont, Empire, Georgetown and Silver Plume. Georgetown even has a Bighorn Sheep Festival each year in November. They are of course living throughout the northern and central mountains of Colorado. Most of my work is done by vehicle. It’s not hard to find them.
As far as photographing these creatures, I use two cameras on my trips. One mounted with a 70-200mm zoom and another with a 200-500mm zoom. I keep a third 24-120mm in the kit to allow for wide angle landscape scenes, as getting close to them can sometimes be a challenge.
One thing to realize about these animals is that even though they can be regularly be found in yards, parking lots and along traveled roads, they are still wild animals and they are protective of themselves and their herds. A mature male bighorn could bust you up quite easily, so get too friendly or aggressive with your actions. Never walk directly towards a bighorn and avoid any action that causes them to change their behavior due to your presence. The first sign that they don’t like you there is they will begin turning the butts towards you. If you are viewing a herd and see nothing but their white butts pointed at you, you know it’s time to move on. If you are quiet, remain still and don’t try to get close to them, they can be quite accommodating and allow photographs. I’d say a safe distance minimum distance is between 75-100 meters, but I’ve had situations where they’ve walked right up to where I am or even hang out near me. The trick is to not alarm them. Just stake yourself out a nice comfortable position without alarming them and they will often times reward you with all of the activity you are trying to find. Never try to touch one, or pet one, or feed one. These are wild animals and you should respect their life and safety and your own life and safety.
All that aside, here are a few shots I’ve taken this year. Not one of the better years as there has been little snow up until now, but every year is different, for different reasons. I’ve seen plenty of bighorn this year, they just aren’t hanging out in photographable locations in great numbers.