Agile bighorns bound back into the valley for winter
In an annual rite, the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep have returned to the Vail Valley after spending the summer in the high mountain meadows and craggy precipices of the Gore Range. Due to their remote location in the summer, bighorns are rarely seen.
In the high Alpine landscape, they feed on lush plants and grasses, which are watered by melting snow and summer rain.
Driven to lower elevations, by snow and harsh conditions, the sheep find their winter range on the sunny, south-facing slopes just out of the valley floor in East Vail.
We are fortunate to have suitable winter habitat for the bighorns. The Bighorns can be viewed, most any day, in the winter, if you are patient and have a keen eye.
Bighorn sheep have a set migration pattern and will return to the same place each winter. Each November, as the snow begins to accumulate, our local population of bighorns return to East Vail and the excitement of the mating season begins.
You may capture the sheep’s strive for dominance, using a pair of binoculars. Dominant rams will encounter challenges from less dominant and younger males for the right to mate. The rams back up, face each other, charge and butt their massive horns together in spectacular duels.
Each ram then assesses the blow they just received. The lesser of the rams backs down and the more powerful one secures its right to pass on its genes.
Young bighorns are often seen romping, playing and mock fighting on the cliffs. A social hierarchy is determined over time, through “king of the mountain”-type games.
Males can breed at four years of age, but are usually denied that right until the age of seven or eight. Females breed in their third year. Bighorns can live for 15 years and sometimes longer.
Bighorn sheep need vertical cliffs or craggy rock nearby to feel safe. Masters of rock climbing, with the ability to jump over 10 feet vertically, bighorn sheep are a challenging catch for predators. They need only a two-inch ledge on which to land. From there, they can jump again and repeat the landing, which enables them to scale sheer cliffs and escape their main predator, the mountain lion.
Bighorn sheep also require a multitude of grasses, sedges and leafy plants for their food. In the winter months, the bighorns consume only a fraction of their required nutrients. Therefore, the sheep rely on summer reserves to sustain them during the coldest months of the year.
They will continually get thinner as winter progresses and an early spring with new vegetation ensures survival through the next season.
Some of the locations, in and near the Vail Valley, where bighorn sheep can be viewed are: on the melted-out slopes in East Vail; in Glenwood Canyon; on the Colorado River Road; in the canyon areas downstream of Burns; above Twin Lakes on the road up to Independence Pass; along the Arkansas River canyons from Buena Vista through Salida; and near Silver Plume on Interstate 70 toward Denver.
You can spot the bighorns by their tan-colored rumps. The rams have massive, full-curled horns while the ewes that have thinner, less curved horns. Also look for lambs, which are typically grouped in with the ewes.
Binoculars are useful in viewing and observing the behavior of these impressive, stout, gorgeous animals, who also happen to be the state mammal of Colorado.
Tom Wiesen is lead guide, and with his wife, Tanya, owner of Trailwise Guides – a snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and wildlife watching guide service in the Vail Valley. Contact Trailwise at (970) 827-5363.