Bighorn sheep are one of my favorite mammals in North America, but the bighorn sheep population was once in decline. Due to reintroduction by many states, the bighorn is now found in quite a few areas in North America.
The Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are found in the cooler mountainous ranges from Southern Canada to West Texas. The desert bighorn sheep prefer the Southwestern United States’ desert ecosystems, including the Grand Canyon, Mojave Desert, and the Sonoran Desert.
Please read on if you want to know more about where you can find bighorn sheep in North America.
What Are Bighorn Sheep?
Bighorn sheep are a type of wild sheep in North America that inhabit the mountains and grasslands. They are well known for their large horns, which can grow up to five feet long, and their distinctive coats ranging in color from light brown to dark brown.
Bighorn sheep live in herds and feed on grasses, shrubs, and sedges. During the winter, they migrate to lower elevations for food. They have horns that curve and use their horns to fight during mating season and defend against predators such as wolves and coyotes. These animals symbolize strength and resilience for many people living in these areas.
They can weigh over 300 pounds (136 kg) and stand 30–35 in (75–90 cm) tall at the shoulder. They are extremely agile and can climb and jump along cliffs or ledges. The Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are the largest wild sheep in North America.
How To Spot Bighorn Sheep
Bighorn sheep can sometimes be challenging to spot due to their color and the surrounding terrain. Bighorn sheep can be found on rocky, mountainous cliffs or meadows. The color of the bighorn can blend into the mountains behind them, and it is only when they move that you may spot them.
If you are looking for bighorns in winter, they can almost always be found on south-facing slopes during the day. Most are active early in the morning or late afternoon.
The Kofa National Wildlife refuge was set up in 1939 to protect desert bighorn sheep in Arizona. Desert bighorn sheep live in the Sonoran desert in the Yuma desert region.
There are estimated to be 428 Desert Bighorn sheep in the area. They live mainly in the Castle Dome and Kofa Mountains of Northern Yuma, where the hills are very rugged.
Big Horn Mountains Wilderness has 9 miles of mountain range and has many desert bighorn sheep.
Havasu Wilderness stretches for 30 miles along the Colorado River. A bighorn herd can be found among the mountains along with other animals.
The Pusch Ridge Wilderness had a reintroduction of desert bighorn sheep in 2016. The population has reached a sustainable level, with lamb survival noted as good.
Bighorn sheep can be found in the southwestern United States in central and eastern Washington. There are populations at Hall Mountain in the Selkirk’s, the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness, and the blue mountains near Joesph Creek.
The endangered peninsular bighorn sheep can be found in the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains. An estimated 1,000 peninsular bighorn sheep are living in these mountains. They are known as low-elevation bighorn and live from 400 to 4,000 feet.
In Death Canyon, the best place to look for the desert bighorn is Titus Canyon, where the freshwater spring provides a year-round watering hole.
Between 200 and 300 bighorn sheep live in Joshua Tree National Park, where three separate herds exist. A pack of 100 animals ranges through the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Another group of 120 lives in the Eagle Mountains, while the third pack is the smallest, with approximately 30 animals in the Wonderland of Rocks.
Bighorn sheep have a massive population in Canada, currently at about 15% of North America’s population. The bighorn is the official mammal of Alberta and can be found in the Canadian Rockies straddling the Alberta-British Columbia border in the west. Bighorn sheep are also found in British Columbia in the southern British Columbia interior.
There are approximately 14,000 bighorn sheep in Canada, with 11,000 in Alberta. The remaining 3,000 live in British Columbia.
In Churn Creek, two sheep herds are in decline but can be seen, while in the Taseko lakes area of the Cariboo, there are more frequent sightings.
There are approximately 7,000 bighorn sheep in Colorado. The Rocky Mountain National Park is home to bighorn sheep. One of the best places to see them is Big Thompson Canyon, where they can be spotted along Highway 34, west of Loveland in the canyon. The herd numbers are approximately 60.
The best place to see bighorn sheep in winter is in the Upper Poudre Canyon. If you start at Rustic, 42 miles Northwest of Fort Collins, head west for several miles to Big Bend Campground. There are approximately 100 in the herd here.
The Arkansas River is a great spot to see them near the water during dawn or dusk.
Browns Canyon National monument is another fantastic place to see the sheep, with many raising their young in the summer.
The desert bighorn sheep is the state animal of Nevada and has a healthy population. The current desert bighorn population is estimated at 8,500. Nevada also has two other subspecies, the California bighorn and the Rocky Mountain bighorn, with a total estimate for all three subspecies of 10,700.
The sheep are found throughout Nevada in southern, central, and western parts. They can be found in mountain ranges and have been seen as far north as Interstate 80.
An excellent place to look for them is in the mountains around Las Vegas. The cliffs around Red Rock Canyon at the Willow Springs picnic area are another perfect place to see them.
In Boulder City, in Hemenway Park, they can be seen along the cliffs around Highway 93 near the Hoover Dam.
Following the reintroduction of bighorn sheep in New Mexico, there are now 15 herds in the state.
Bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the Wheeler Peak Wilderness in 1993 but have made their way to the Taos Pueblo side. Bighorns stay on Taos Pueblos’ south-facing slopes in winter before returning to the north side in the summer.
Approximately 40 sheep were released recently into the Sacramento Mountains behind the New Mexico Museum of Space History. The goal is to have a self-sustaining population in this area, and it seems that this is growing.
Texas has worked hard to replenish its bighorn sheep since 1954 and has been reintroducing them. Texas now has eleven herds of desert bighorn sheep.
In Culberson and Hudspeth Counties, forty-five bighorns were released into the north end of the mountain range in the Sierra Diablo Mountains. The Sierra Diablo Mountains, the fields north of Van Horn, and the adjacent Beach and Baylor range now support about 800 animals.
Brewster County, South of Alpine’s Elephant Mountain Wildlife Management Area, has increased substantially following their relocation.
In Presidio County, the bighorns in the Sierra Vieja mountains that can now be seen were translocated, and numbers are increasing.
The next herd can be found in the Baylor Mountains in Culberson County. Twenty-one bighorns, six rams, and 15 ewes were reintroduced from the Chillicothe Ranch brood pasture. Bighorns can be seen in the Beach Mountains and also in Culberson County.
In the West of Texas in Brewster county, the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area (BGWMA) has relocated both rams and ewes since 1995. The BGWMA is located in Bofecillos Mountains in Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Utah has approximately 3,600 bighorn sheep in the state. There is 2,800 desert bighorn in the Southeast and 800 Rocky Mountain bighorns in the state’s Northern half. On Antelope Island, the California bighorn is a separate population of Rocky Mountain sheep.
Hiking the Canyon Overlook trail in Zion National park is a great way to see desert bighorn sheep. The sheep were reintroduced to the region but dwindled to low numbers before returning. Bighorn sheep are now in such large numbers in Zion National Park that officials are worried about them spreading disease to and from domestic sheep livestock.
References and Further Reading
“The Bighorn Sheep: Ecology and Management” by John W. Hogg and Harold F. Jacobsen
“Bighorn Sheep: Ecology, Conservation, and Management” by David E. Naugle and Robert D. Wehausen
“The Bighorn Sheep: North America’s Mountain Icon” by Michael J. Senn
“Wild Sheep of North America: A Guide to the Wild Sheep of North America and Asia” by Jack Reneau and Jack Atcheson Jr.
“Bighorn Sheep: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN)
“Bighorn Sheep: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation” by James D. Peek and Robert R. Ream
“The Wild Sheep of North America: A Complete Guide to the Wild Sheep of North America” by Durwood Allen
“The Bighorn Sheep: Its Life and Ecology” by Robert A. Garrott and James R. Daugherty