Bighorn sheep enter the rut at the end of November. It lasts until mid-December, but you can still view the animals near Dubois through March. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Bighorn sheep tours offer rare up-close viewing of elusive animals

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton
—December 3, 2013

When bighorn sheep rams fight, and their horns collide, you can hear the sound a mile away. In the rut, when males show off their strength and prowess, they can reach speeds of up to 20 mph before their horns — which can weigh 30 pounds — crash into each other.

A woman who’d witnessed this told me at a coffee shop in Dubois it is “like being dropped into National Geographic.”

The iconic animals are elusive, making their homes high into the mountains. The Dubois region is home to the largest wintering herd of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the world.

They come to Whiskey Basin for easier foraging, and for about a month — starting in mid-November — the males and females come together for the rut when the males engage in a spectacular display to prove dominance. It’s an incredible spectacle and one you can see up close with a tour — either self-guided or with staff — from the National Bighorn Sheep Center.

Driving to the top of Torrey Rim is an adventure itself. The road reaches upward so steeply it’s like riding a rollercoaster. You become so reclined your view is of the sky. Suzan Moulton, executive director with the National Bighorn Sheep Center, hasn’t even started telling me about the sheep and I’m already glad to have opted for a guided tour to avoid driving this road.

I’d anticipated a plunging drop, but as we crested the top of the hill we discovered a view into the heart of the Wind River Mountains on one side, and windswept terrain and bighorn sheep on the other. The environment is so rocky and rough it deterred Europeans who first settled the area, Moulton said. There weren’t minerals or resources of value so the area remained unsettled and, most importantly, void of domestic sheep which carry diseases bighorn sheep can’t ward off.

“It worked out well. This place is a bouldery-mess,” Moulton said, while carefully maneuvering massive rocks and divots in the road.

Torrey Rim and the Whiskey Basin became a stronghold for bighorn sheep. About 650 of the state’s 7,000 sheep winter in the area. The area is perfect for the sheep. The fierce wind blows the snow, leaving exposed more food, and there’s plenty of room for the sheep to roam. Bighorn sheep populations can exist precariously. Moulton said she once knew of a biologist who described the animals as “a set of lungs looking to die,” because they are so susceptible to diseases, like pneumonia. They are not well adapted to changes, and they return to the same pastures each year, even if the quality diminishes.

Some populations have experienced massive devastation. Bam Bam, a bighorn sheep people came to know in Sinks Canyon, died at the Sybille Wildlife Research Center last winter. Bam Bam was believed to be the last of the wild sheep that once lived in Sinks Canyon. Other herds around the state have experienced population declines of up to 50 percent from disease.

In Whiskey Basin the herd has been historically healthy, Moulton said. Then a few years ago, the year’s crop of lambs suddenly died. No one is sure exactly what happened, but the population is again growing steadily.

Moulton operates guided tours from the interpretive center all winter. There is a small window where the sheep can be viewed on the top of the rim when the males and females are together for the rut.

Jared Lloyd of Alpine photographs bighorn sheep near Dubois while on a tour with the National Bighorn Sheep Center Nov. 26. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Jarred Lloyd, a photographer from Alpine, spent 12 days this November in Dubois touring with Moulton and driving himself around the area, and even enticed a fellow photographer  from Florida to join him for part of the trip.

Part of the appeal of photographing these sheep is the location, Lloyd said. The rim is surrounded by picturesque vistas. The area was formed by glaciers and you can see where the glacial movement stopped, forming the badlands, said Moulton, pointing out on the horizon where desert reds are framed by the snowcapped peaks of the Absaroka Mountains.

“Take away the sheep and I’d still want to come up here and shoot,” Lloyd said.

Unlike photographing wildlife in places like the Tetons or Yellowstone where you might have to jockey for position, we were the only people on top of the rim on a sunny afternoon. “A big part of the experience is just being out here,” Lloyd said. “You’re kind of one-on-one with the wildlife.”

Lloyd said he is drawn to bighorn sheep because they are unusual to see, spending time away from areas humans frequent. Plus they are so distinctive-looking with the curled horn. “They’re the mountain monarchs, royalty of the Rockies, to use a cheesy cliché,” he said. Plus, there’s always the possibility of that explosive fight. There is something heart-stopping about watching the sheep stand up on their hind legs before lowering their head and charging at each other.

I watched, hoping to see one of the famous ram fights. The males curled their lips searching for signs and scents of females in heat. They stretched their necks. “That’s like saying ‘Look at my horns baby,’” Moulton said.

The males kicked at each other, posturing.

“These sheep area a lot like middle school boys in a locker room,” Moulton said.

Different sheep play unique roles within the herd and Moulton pointed out some of the cast of characters, like which she believes is the matriarchal ewe, an older female the herd follows to other pastures as though acknowledging its survived this long, it must know what it’s doing. The light began to fade and we still hadn’t seen a horn-ramming fight, but I’d almost forgotten that is what I came to experience. I’d been so transfixed watching and learning about the herd.

The first two weeks of December will likely be action-packed. Tours cost $50 and require reservations. Call 888-209-2795.

The bighorn sheep that winter near Dubois make up the largest herd in North America. (Kelsey Dayton/WyoFile — click to enlarge)

Tips for photographing bighorn sheep

Professional wildlife photographer Jared Lloyd gives a few tips on capturing the iconic animals whether you are aiming with you smart phone, or wielding a DSLR.

  1. Shoot in the early morning or late afternoon. That’s when you’ll get the best light.
  2. Get low. You should be eye level or below the sheep.
  3. Dress for getting low- and photographing outside in general. This can mean sitting or even laying in the snow. Wear warm and waterproof clothing.
  4. Focus on the rams- or the lambs. No offense to the ewes, but the rams with the curled horns are more interesting and distinctive visually. And the lambs- well it’s hard to go wrong with frolicking baby animals of any species.
  5. Try to isolate a single sheep. You might not see it until looking at your pictures later, but when clumped together the sheep can create some unfortunate poses and the bodies can look mutated- like one body with three heads or a sheep with six legs.
  6. Consider the background- it’s as important as the light. Look for a dramatic background, which in the Whiskey Basin area can be as beautiful as the sheep.
  7. Consider the direction of the light. Light hitting the animal from the side allows a photograph to capture more detail and look more textured.
  8. Create a simple composition.
  9. Do your homework beforehand to learn the behavior of the animals, so you understand what’s happening and when you want to be ready to shoot.
—“Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at kelsey.dayton@gmail.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton

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Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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