Bighorn sheep are fascinating animals and garner a lot of attention when they are spotted in the area. People travel from thousands of miles away just to get a glimpse of them. And for good reason. They are named for the rams’ (males) large curved horns that give them their name. The large rams are very impressive. Not just for their horn size but for their body heft as well. The big rams can weigh over 300 pounds! That’s a big sheep! And that’s 300+ pounds of muscle. The truly amazing thing is how agile they can move along cliff faces and through incredibly rugged terrain. If you’ve ever seen it you’ll know what I mean.
These herds of Bighorn Sheep here in the Estes Park area have a very interesting history. There are a couple of main herds that visit the property here at McGregor. Both the Mummy Herd and the Black Canyon Herd are seen here. The one main differentiating feature between the two herds is the color of their fur. The Mummy Herd (named for the Mummy Range – the range of mountains surrounding McGregor Mountain Lodge) tend to stay higher in the range very often above timberline. They have a lighter color due to bleaching from the sun. The Black Canyon Herd (named for Black Canyon – the valley on the north side of McGregor Mountain) tend to stay below timberline and thus have a darker color. When the two herds are seen together the difference is very noticeable and easily recognizable.
There have been some epidemics that have plagued ‘our’ sheep over the past 20-30 years, namely pneumonia, and the herds were almost wiped out because of it. These diseases tend to come from Bighorns co-mingling, somehow, with domesticated sheep where these diseases seem to initiate. I know the Colorado Division of Wildlife intervened to some degree but I’m not sure how much or in what capacity. Long story short, the population began to rebound to a degree that some of the Black Canyon herd were actually relocated into the heart of the Big Thompson Canyon to reestablish a herd that had previously been wiped out due to pneumonia. This herd is currently thriving and it’s nice to see ‘our’ sheep when we travel through the Big Thompson Canyon!
There have been other issues with the herds over the past several years, but nothing too devastating and as far as we know both herds are in great shape and thriving.
When seen on the property the sheep are usually found grazing on the mountainside below our Lower Chalet Suites. It’s a small meadow of sorts where the sheep have a good view of their surroundings and the grass greens early and stays green late (being that we water throughout the spring/summer/fall). They graze on the grass, seeds, and shrubs then will go up higher on the mountainside to regurgitate their food and chew it as cud before swallowing for final digestion. Usually we see the separate groups within the herds. We either see the ewes together, with their lambs (both ewes and rams), or we see a group of all adult rams of various ages. It’s only in the fall when they all hang out together which is during the rut, or mating season. That is when you’ll see the big rams mixed in with the ewes and lambs. The rams can be agressive towards humans during this time (actually the sheep *can* be agressive anytime) so it is best to keep a very respectful distance.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife warns us whenever we do any kind of structural remodeling here at the lodge because the sheep are known to get stressed very easily at changes in their environment. Anytime someone wants to build anything in their habitat an environmental impact study must be done and a plan must be in place to minimize impact on the sheep. Things like only building during certain seasons, such as summer, when the sheep are typically higher in the mountains. We are very respectful of the sheep here, but we have found them to not mind so much about noise and activity. In fact, they usually come down to see what’s going on if we’re running a chainsaw or if there is any tractor work going on. When the in ground water tank was being put in near the northwest corner of the property, a large bulldozer was left running as the operator ate lunch in his truck near by. A very large ram came down to investigate then laid down and took about an hour long nap directly next to the bulldozer! While they are very sensitive animals, they are equally as curious as to what is happening in and around their home.
We sure do love these incredible animals and feel so lucky that we get to share this little spot of the rockies with a good number of them! If seeing these animals is on your bucket list or simply something you think you would enjoy, then we certainly have room for you! If you want to see them in their rutting action you should come in November or December. Though they do take a bit of work to spot during that time of year, it is a great sight to see the big rams butting heads and all the activity surrounding the rut. If you don’t want to have to work so hard to see them then spring is a fantastic time to visit. April seems to be the best month, but May and early June are great as well.
We hope to see you up here soon!