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Matt Marine

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Bighorn Sheep

October 18, 2012

By Matt Marine

NOTE: click on any of the pictures to zoom in (larger picture).

I have been lucky enough to see wild bighorn sheep in Arizona three times. Once in the 1990's in the White Mountains near Buffalo Crossing and twice within a week of each other in spots in southern Arizona.

The pictures here were of a herd we spotted on a camping trip near Klondyke. They were eating the red fruit off the prickly pear cactus like it was candy. The juice stained their lips and made it look as though they were wearing red lipstick.

This group was so engrossed by the fruit that they let me get within 20 feet of them before one of the big rams gave me a snort that I took as, "that's close enough."

Figuring that I was near to a 100 cliff edge and if he charged, I would go over, I didn't try to get any closer.

Before white settlers began arriving in significant numbers in the late 1800's, there were large numbers of bighorn sheep throughout Arizona (except for the northeast and southeast corners). Their numbers diminished rapidly from a number of causes:
- new diseased introduced by domesticated livestock
- over hunting
- reduction or denying of water sources

By the 1960's, only a few thousand bighorn sheep remained. The number would have been much smaller if not for the work of Frederick Russell Burnham and the Arizona Boy Scouts who lobbied for bighorn sheep refuges. In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation that established two desert areas in southwestern Arizona to help preserve the desert bighorn sheep: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. By 1993, the census had counted about twice as many sheep as in the 1960's (approximately 6,000).

The bighorn sheep of Arizona are known as desert bighorn sheep. The difference is that the desert variety of bighorn sheep have adapted to where they can be without a substantial water supply for a long time (sometimes weeks to months), surviving on water in their food or small rain puddles.

The sheep are about the size of a mule deer and rams can weight as much as 200 lbs. Both the male and female sheep have horns that develop soon after birth. These horns grow continuously throughout their lives. The ram's horns curl and can grow to be more than three feet long and over a foot in circumference at their base. A full set of horns can weigh as much as 30 lbs. A female's horns (ewe's) are only slightly curved and much smaller than the males horns. Annual growth rings on the horns can indicate how old the sheep is. The sheep use these horns to break open cactus for eating, defense and for fighting.

Bighorn sheep have concave elastic hooves allowing them to climb the steep, rocky terrain of the desert mountains with speed and agility. They also have keen eyesight to see potential predators (mountain lions, coyotes, and bobcats for the lambs) before they get close, then they use their climbing ability to escape.

Bighorn sheep live for about 15-20 years. They survive mainly on grass for food and will eat cactus (and cactus fruit) when the opportunity arises or when needed. The sheep are social creatures and form small herds of about 10 animals (though much larger herds have been seen). These small herds allow them to survive in areas with little water which could not sustain larger herds.

One ram will be the dominant ram of the herd. This is determined by battling other males until one reigns supreme. The two rams will put their heads down and charge each other, crashing their large horns into the others (resulting in a loud crack) until one gives up. The dominant male then takes charge over the others in the herd and mates with the ewes. When it's not breeding season, bands of rams and ewes will live separately.

These are some of the most magnificent creatures I've ever seen. I hope you are lucky enough to spot some in the wild.

For more information, visit:
Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society

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