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Bighorn Sheep (Desert)

Estimated reading time: 9 min

The four species of North American Wild Sheep are the glamour animals of the continent’s big game. While a small percentage of hunters may ultimately have the opportunity and resources to hunt sheep, most of us dream about hunting for a trophy ram.

The allure of hunting sheep is multi-faceted.

Part of it is about the tales of sheep hunting from legendary hunting icons like Jack O’Connor, Fred Bear, and more. In the days before bush planes and ATVs, sheep hunts were long expeditions, usually beginning on horseback, then afoot when the terrain got too rugged. It took days to reach wall tent base camps deep in the mountains. From there, hunters and guides spiked out for a week or more at a time. Even then, an old ram with massive horns was a rare and hard-earned trophy, as it remains today.

Another part of the allure is simply being in sheep country. The places wild sheep live are universally spectacular and inspiring. That’s true whether you’re on top of the world in Alaska, the Yukon, or BC or the desert mountains of the southwestern U.S. or Mexico. Wild sheep live in the most remote, but most beautiful places on earth.

And finally, the rarity of the opportunity to hunt sheep is appealing in itself to many hunters. For all but a very few, an opportunity to hunt North American wild sheep is a once in a lifetime experience … or the very next thing to it.

While there are a few opportunities to draw sheep tags in areas that a non-resident hunter could legally hunt by himself or herself, there aren’t many of them. And even if you draw such a tag, you’d probably want to consider seriously employing the services of a highly-rated sheep outfitter anyway. Living in sheep country, the outfitter’s access

and the resources he can devote to scouting and planning the hunt significantly boost your odds for success. Would you risk the opportunity in a nearly-once-in-a-lifetime tag by hunting blind, without access to the wisdom of an experienced sheep hunting outfitter?

An established outfitter also provides the accommodations and services that allow you to concentrate fully on the hunt and enjoy every moment of this rare hunting opportunity.

North American Wild Sheep Facts

The Boone & Crockett and Pope & Young Clubs recognize four subspecies of North American Wild Sheep: Dall Sheep, Stone Sheep, Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep, and Desert Bighorn Sheep. Other record keeping organizations also recognize a third category of bighorn designated the California Bighorn Sheep.

There is also a color phase known as the Fannin Sheep which is believed to be a hybrid cross between Dall and Stone sheep. These sheep are primarily white like Dall Sheep, but have a black tail, and exhibit some darker coloration in the hair on their bodies, but not nearly as pronounced as in pure Stone Sheep. If a Fannin Sheep has only a black tail it is classified as a Dall sheep for record keeping. If it has dark hair in the body, it is classified as a Stone Sheep.

Dall Sheep

Dall Sheep are the pure white wild sheep of North America’s far northern mountains. They are found in Alaska, extreme northwestern British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and the MacKenzie Mountains of the Northwest Territories. Dalls are the most numerous and most hunted of the North American wild sheep today. For those hunters pursuing their North American Grand Slam of sheep, the Dall is considered the starter species because it affords the greatest hunting opportunity and is the least expensive to pursue.

As do all of the wild sheep species, Dall rams have heavy, curling horns, though of all the North American species, their horns are the least massive. Ewes also have small, curved horns, but are easily distinguishable from rams.

Dall Sheep inhabit rugged alpine terrain above tree line, but close to meadows for grazing. This habitat keeps them secure from predators both four-legged and two-legged. Rams generally herd together separately from bands of ewes and lambs. The only time they readily intermix is during the rutting season which is November and December in most of the range.

Non-resident hunters in all Dall Sheep states and provinces are required to be in the company of a licensed guide/outfitter to pursue these animals.

Stone Sheep

Stone Sheep are similar in habits, habitat, and build to the Dall Sheep, but are found in a more limited range and smaller numbers. The primary difference between Stone Sheep and Dall Sheep is coloration. Where the Dall wears a stark white coat, the Stone’s is a slate brown to slate gray to nearly black with white on the rump, underbelly, legs and chest. The head and, sometimes, neck are normally lighter than the coloration of the body and can even be white as well.

While Dall Sheep and Stone Sheep ranges overlap in some areas (accounting for the Fannin Sheep hybrid), pure Stone Sheep are found only in northern British Columbia and southern reaches of the Yukon Territories.

Stone Sheep tend to be slightly larger than most Dalls with Stone rams regularly pushing past the 200-pound live weight mark. Their horns also take on slightly larger dimensions, particularly when it comes to mass, though not nearly as heavy as the bighorn sheep species.

Hunters fortunate enough to pursue Stone Sheep will tell you that their northern Canadian habitat is simply some of the most beautiful country anywhere in the world.

Because of the limited range and numbers, hunting opportunities for Stone Sheep are also more limited and, therefore, more expensive. Non-resident hunters are required to hunt Stone Sheep in the company of a licensed guide/outfitter.

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn is the largest of the North American Wild Sheep and one of the largest in the world. Mature rams regularly tip the scales at 250 pounds and sometimes exceed 300 pounds. They are much stouter, more heavily built animals than the Dall and Stone Sheep of the far north.

The very name “bighorn” is perfectly descriptive of the ram’s headgear. The horns are thick, massive, and heavy. They curly tightly for their mass and don’t flair outward nearly as much as the more northern North American sheep species.

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn range includes the mountainous areas of the western United States and Canada. Rocky Mountain Bighorns are found in the states of: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska. They also range in eastern British Columbia and Western Alberta. Most all of these locations offer some type of limited hunting opportunities. However, many offer just a few tags on special lotteries or auctions. Others are open to residents only and/or on once-in-a-lifetime permit systems.

The bighorn’s coat is overall grayish brown which can vary from light to dark depending on location and season of the year. The muzzle is white, as are the backs of the front legs and insides of hind legs. The belly is white in the groin area, with the white color sometimes extending forward onto the chest. The rump patch is large and white, surrounding the short, dark tail.
The Rocky Mountain Bighorn inhabits mountain ridges and basins usually above timber-line and as high as 12- to 13-thousand feet. These sheep will inhabit timbered areas as well, particularly using them as winter range. Its diet has more browse and less grass than other North American wild sheep species.

The Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep is arguably the most difficult of all North American big game animals to acquire. While their numbers are steady, they are not numerous anywhere, and hunting opportunities are strictly limited to maintain the resource. Hunters who dream of pursuing this magnificent game animal either play the drawing game for years in hopes of building enough preference points to win a coveted permit, or acquire a tag by purchasing it in an auction. Conservation departments and organizations use these auctions to raise millions of dollars in support of their efforts. Bighorn Sheep tags at auction nearly always sell for six-figure prices and sometimes reach seven figures for a single tag.

Once you acquire a tag, and find a qualified outfitter to assist you, hunting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep remains one of the lowest “percentage games” in all of hunting. However, the rewards of hunting in “sheep country” make it one of the most aspirational of all the world’s hunting opportunities.

California Bighorn Sheep

The California Bighorn is largely a smaller version of the Rocky Mountain Bighorn in both body and horn size. The California subspecies weighs about 25% less than the Rocky Mountain. Horns are both shorter in length and less massive. They tend to have more flair, but not as much as the Dall and Stone. Overall coloration of the California is lighter than the Rocky Mountain.
The original range of the California Bighorn Sheep included south-central British Columbia into eastern parts of Washington, Oregon, and northwestern Nevada. However, successful introduction programs have created stable and growing populations in Idaho and Utah as well as expanded ranges in the original states.

Hunting of California Bighorns is similar to hunting the Rocky Mountain variety, except they tend to inhabit terrain that’s a bit more rolling, at lower altitudes, and prairie-like. However, hunting opportunities are as tightly controlled and in some cases even more so.

Most record-keeping organizations’ grand slam programs allow participants to take either a California or a Rocky Mountain to qualify for a slam rather than both. However, “super slams” and such may require taking both subspecies.

Desert Bighorn Sheep

When you compare photos of Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep to Desert Bighorn sheep, or if you’re fortunate to see both in their natural habitats you may first be impressed by the size of the Desert Bighorns’ horns. They appear huge, even outsized for the ram’s body. Well, that’s actually because the sheep itself is a good bit smaller in stature. A mature Desert ram may only weigh half as much as its Rocky Mountain cousin. In fact, they are the smallest bodied of the North American Wild Sheep species.

Though closely related to the Rocky Mountain Bighorn, the Desert Bighorn has a number of adaptations that allow it to live in the desert terrain with far less feed and water than the mountain variety. Besides size, Desert Bighorns have a shorter, lighter-colored coat. They have larger ears that help in dissipating body heat. The Desert Bighorn has also learned to use its horns for breaking open cactus to eat the inside pulp containing both nutrition and moisture. Desert Bighorns can go days or even weeks without visiting waterholes.

Today Desert Bighorns are found in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, and western portions of Mexico including the Baja Peninsula.

Of all the North American Sheep Species, hunting opportunities for the Desert Bighorn are the most limited and the most expensive. Drawing a tag in most U.S. states is nearly the equivalent of hitting the lottery. Tags can be acquired “over the counter” in Mexico, but prices run well into the six figures.

While the habitat of the Desert Bighorn is not as foreboding because of it’s elevation or remoteness, hunting them is every bit as challenging as pursuing the northern sheep species. The climate is hot and dry – the reason for the “desert” part of the sheep’s name. And the footing can be as or more treacherous than in the younger, more northerly mountain ranges.

Hunting North American Wild Sheep

As you can tell, while hunting wild sheep rates high on the “bucket lists” of many hunters, opportunities to do so are limited, particularly for non-residents of sheep country. That means persistence is the key; both persistence in acquiring tags through drawing or auction and persistence once you’re in the field. Hunting sheep, even with the assistance of a highly-rated outfitter, is a low percentage game.

If the opportunity to hunt North American Wild Sheep does come your way, you’ll find it’s an ultimate form of spot and stalk hunting. You’ll need to rely on top quality optics in the form of binoculars and spotting scopes to both locate sheep and evaluate trophy quality. Regulations are very strict about taking mature rams of certain age minimums or horn configurations. Basically, you must be able to count the annual growth marks on a ram’s horns to determine its age or view the horns from several angles to ensure that there’s enough curl to qualify the ram as legal. Both of these require a very good view of the sheep, frequently from long ranges. They also both require a good bit of training, experience or both to judge accurately and quickly.

Sheep hunting is physically challenging as it requires climbing in steep terrain, on loose footing, often at high altitudes. Most sheep hunting is backpack hunting in which you carry on your own back the gear required to establish spike camps each night as well as your food and hunting equipment.

North American Wild Sheep Outfitters

Even in the rare opportunities, there may be to hunt North American Wild Sheep on your own, employing an experienced, highly-rated outfitter will significantly boost your odds of success. And while the services of such famous outfitters may seem costly at first, when you look at what you’d have to invest in time and equipment and access to do it on your own, the cost will quickly be viewed as a real value.

Just as there are legendary North American Wild Sheep trophies and hunters, there are also legendary outfitters. Seeking them out and doing your research to find the right operation for you is worth the effort. There are, particularly for Desert Bighorn Sheep in Mexico, unscrupulous operations that are operating illegally. If you employ one of these services – knowingly or unknowingly – you can be prosecuted for international hunting violations with repercussions both in Mexico and in the United States.

Rest assured, there are many quality, trustworthy sheep hunting outfitters out there to make your sheep hunting dreams come true.

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