Icon of the Tetons
Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is an iconic species of sheep native to the United States, Mexico, and Canada. They inhabit alpine meadows, grassy mountain areas, rocky cliffs, and bluffs, and use cliffs and rocky terrain to escape from predators.
One of the most spectacular events to witness in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem during the fall months is males (known as rams) butting heads during mating season. Two rams of roughly equal size and weight will race at each other at up to 20mph before clashing their foreheads together. To do this, ram skulls have two layers of bone above the brain that function as a shock absorber. The sound emitted from head butting can travel up to a mile away!
A 2018 survey by the National Park Service found 131 sheep living within Yellowstone National Park. The population has been increasing steadily, even as they face more competition from the growing wolf population. In Jackson, there are two herds of sheep: one in Muller Butte in the National Elk Refuge, and the Teton herd in Grand Teton National Park. The Teton herd is small and genetically unique, and unlike the Yellowstone population has dropped in numbers by 50% in the last 10 years, making them extremely vulnerable to local extinction. The Bighorn Sheep Working Group just released recommendations to protect the sheep – read them here.
During winter, bighorn sheep often congregate in small groups in sheltered valleys. It is crucial that winter recreationists do not disturb sheep (or any wildlife) during winter or spring, as these harsh months are often the toughest time for them to find food. Unnecessary stress caused by people can lead to the exertion of precious energy and, ultimately, can result in death. To prevent this, make sure to respect winter closure areas and remember “DON’T POACH THE POWDER!”