During your Yosemite vacation, you would be very lucky indeed to get a chance to see wild bighorn sheep up close and personal. But even catching a glimpse of these majestic mammals from afar can be a thrill.
Famous conservationist John Muir wrote in his book "The Mountains of California" that the wild bighorn sheep ranks highest among the animal mountaineers of the Sierra Nevada.
"Possessed of keen sight and scent, and strong limbs, he dwells secure amid the loftiest summits, leaping unscathed from crag to crag, up and down the fronts of giddy precipices, crossing foaming torrents and slopes of frozen snow, exposed to the wildest storms, yet maintaining a brave, warm life, and developing from generation to generation in perfect strength and beauty."
Characteristics of the Sierra Nevada Bighorn
On average, Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep grow to be about three feet tall. Fully grown adult males can weigh over 200 pounds, while females are about two-thirds that size. The wool of these bighorn sheep can vary in color from white to dark brown, but usually all have a white rump patch and a short, dark-brown or black tail. Both females and males have distinctively curved horns, but males have the bigger horns, which are used in mating battles during the late-autumn-rutting season. Ewes usually give birth to lambs in spring and early summer.
Close to Extinction, Bighorn Slow to Recovery
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, scientists estimate that perhaps thousands of bighorn sheep ranged freely across the Sierra Nevada, migrating seasonally from summer grazing grounds in highland meadows down to spend winters in the lowlands on the eastern side of the mountain range.
Diseases introduced by domestic sheep brought into the region by early pioneers, along with increased predation by mountain lions and the loss of traditional habitat and migration routes, have brought the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep population to the brink of extinction. In 2009, their total California population was only 400, with approximately 40 thought to be living in and around Yosemite, despite conservation efforts that include reintroduction of sheep into the wild. New conservation efforts have brought more bighorn to the Cathedral Peaks area of Yosemite in 2015. Watch a video of their delivery by helicopter.
Where to See Bighorn in the Yosemite Area
In Yosemite National Park, the usual habitat of bighorn sheep during summer is above the 10,000-foot level in the northeastern corner of the park, where they are safer from predators, especially when they nimbly climb out onto rocky ledges.
Bighorn Herds in the Sierra Mountains: Mount Warren, Mount Gibbs, Wheeler Ridge, Sawmill Canyon, Mount Baxter, Mount Williamson, Mount Langley, Bubbs Creek, Convict Creek, Olancha Peak, Big Arroyo, and Laurel Creek.
Interestingly, due to poor eyesight and a stocky build that prevents them from running as quickly as their predators such as mountain lions, bighorn sheep prefer open country to forested areas. By clearing away trees and brush, wildfires in the high Sierra Nevada can actually help expand the shrinking habitat of bighorn sheep, and thereby increase their chances of survival.
For more information about Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep, including the latest news and how you can help protect these endangered animals, visit www.sierrabighorn.org.