Colorado Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
A fully mature Bighorn ram
Who I am
My Name is Kurt Reifschneider and I am not in any way or means a wildlife biologist. What I am though, is a Colorado native that grew up in southwest Denver and within a 30 minute drive to the Colorado Rocky Mountains and while growing up spent every free minute exploring, backpacking, hiking, camping, fishing, photographing, four wheeling and exploring ghost towns in these wonderful mountains of old.
During my travels and explorations as I have been able to observe, photograph and study numerous species of wildlife. Although not scientific by any means, I do feel that I have become an expert in the ways of some of our wildlife in these glorious mountains of Colorado.
As I have gotten older my passion has turned to photography and I have learned to hunt and locate the Big Horn Sheep for photo opportunities on a limited time frame such as a weekend day.
Here is my guide to locate and observe one of natures most magnificent wild creatures the Colorado Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep.
A young ram looks at his reflection in a pool of water
Colorado state animal Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep
Named for the massive curling horns (which can grow to 50 inches in length), the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) were designated official state animal of Colorado in 1961. Bighorn sheep are only found in the Rocky mountains, not only in Colorado but the whole range of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico. They are known for their perfect balance and agility. Bighorn sheep live in very rugged terrain most of the time high above timberline, but often times can also be found down at lower elevations. Unlike deer or elk the big horn sheep do not shed their horns annually and maintain them their entire life and a set of mature horns can weigh as much as 30 to 35 pounds.
As of today they are about 45,000 of the species scattered throughout the Rocky Mountains in small and sometime isolated herds. Rocky Mountain bighorns are protected under the Endangered Species Act and can only be hunted under the law to cull the herd for the long time preservation of the herd. In the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota in years gone by a subspecies of the Bighorn was hunted into extinction by uncontrolled hunting. The 3 small herds that now live in those areas were transplanted and reintroduced into the areas from other states.
It has been my observation over the years that Rocky Mountain bighorns are very social animals. Most of the time you will see them in two separate groups with mature rams (older than 2-3 years old) staying in one group and the ewes (female) and lambs and young rams staying in another. That is until the rutting season, which in Colorado is between the middle of November to late December. It is during the rut that these two separate bands will join together. The Bighorn sheep higher social order is defined by the mature male rams body and horn size. The alpha male will prove total dominance over the herd by knockout horn butting of heads. I have seen these battles in the wild and it is really something to behold.
Bighorn sheep live span is only 10-12 years.
Head butting at it's best
Locating Colorado Bighorn Sheep
Now that we have learned some about the Colorado state animal I will give you some ideas where to locate them if you want to observe or photograph. As I stated earlier, this is an unscientific approach to locating them, but has been my observation during my lifetime as a native Coloradoan who is very familiar with the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
I am going to give you maps and location of the 3 herds I know the most about and I am going to break them down into names according to locale.
1. Rocky Mountain National Park Herd: This herd is located in one of the most beautiful nature setting's in the world with the same name.
2. Georgetown Herd: This herd is located in or around the surrounding mountains and mountain passes near Georgetown Colorado.
3. Blue Mesa Herd: This herd is located in or around the surrounding mountains and mountain passes near Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Bighorn sheep photographed in Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain Natioanl Park herd range
Entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park
Rocky Mountain National Park Herd:
On the map above if you drew a circle as big as the map, but the outside edges where Grand Lake and Estes Park, Colorado this would be the range of the Rocky Mountain National Park herd of Bighorn sheep. Rocky Mountain National Park is located between Grand Lake and Estes Park, Colorado. There are two entrances within a mile or so from Estes Park, Colorado. I have seen Bighorn sheep just in one area of the park, but I am sure they roam in some of the remote areas of the park. I have always located them at Sheep Lakes from May through mid-August about half-way in between Fall River Road and the farthest northeast entrance to the park on the Estes Park side.
Members of the Rocky Mountain National Park herd
Georgetown Herd range
Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Viewing Area
On the map above if you made a circle around all the points on the map you will have the located the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep range of the Georgetown herd. This herd of Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep's range happens to follow the Interstate 70 corridor from Denver to Eisenhower Tunnel which passes under the Continental Divide. If you stop in Georgetown, they actually even have a Bighorn sheep viewing area just off to the east of the Interstate with the telescope's that you can rent for 25 cents that will focus on the Bighorn on the west side of the Interstate. Some of my best award winning photographs has been taken as the Bighorn sheep grazed just along Interstate 70 during the summer months.
This photo was taken just on Interstate 70 just west of Georgetown Colorado
Blue Mesa Reservoir Herd
Photo taken from highway 50 facing north at Blue Mesa Reservoir
Blue Mesa Reservoir Herd
On the map above if you made a circle around all the points on the map you will have the located the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep range of the Blue Mesa Reservoir Herd. I have observed the species all through the Blue Mesa Reservoir and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park areas. I have also run across them on a photo shoot near Lake City, Colorado. I would suggest driving Highway 50 from Montrose to Gunnison, Colorado which will take you the whole length of the Blue Mesa Reservoir during the spring and summer months and more than likely you will be able to observe and photograph many of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep of this herd.
Young Ram at Blue Mesa Reservoir
Planning your Colorado Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep safari
My hope in this article is to give you, the reader some interesting facts about Colorado's magnificent and sometimes elusive state animal the Colorado Bighorn Sheep. I would also hope I have given you some insight on where to look and try to locate this glorious animal in our beautiful state. And remember to take your camera for that once in a lifetime photographic gem.