Big horns, big viewing

(A version of this article first appeared in Santa Fean magazine in December 2020. Although it focuses on where to view bighorn sheep in Northern New Mexico, it includes some fascinating facts about Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep that should interest any wildlife lover. It’s part of my SouthWest Wild series.)

A group of Rocky Mountain bighorn rams. Photo by Martin Perea courtesy New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

And you thought you had it hard this winter.  Quarantine is no picnic, but it could be worse: you could be a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

New Mexico is home to 11 herds of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, a species that thrives in high elevation, rocky habitat such as Pecos Baldy and Wheeler Peak.  (A related species, the desert bighorn sheep, roams other parts of the state.) In the baldies above timberline, where trees disappear and rocks reign, the highly nimble bighorn sheep can escape predators such as mountain lions, which have nowhere to hide on such unforgiving terrain.

Mountaintops might be a wonderfully cool escape in the summer. But in the winter, they can sustain bitterly cold hurricane force winds, according to New Mexico Department of Game and Fish biologist Eric Rominger. You might think that during colder months bighorn sheep would seek friendlier climes. But most of them stay put all winter long. In fact, according to Dr. Rominger, the highest elevation herds actually seek out the harshest conditions.

A young ram. Photo by Erin Duvuvei.

“Those really high winds blow the windward side [of the mountains] free of snow so the vegetation is available [for feed],” Rominger explains. “On the lee side the snow builds up and there’s avalanche risk.“ And so the sheep avoid the less windy sides of the mountains in the winter. They also don’t seek shelter in the trees, according to Rominger. “The snow gets really deep in the trees, so it’s not an option for them to retreat… It’s these extreme windswept slopes that these sheep winter on.”

Lucky skiers might spot some of them. “Often skiers at Taos Ski Valley see bighorn sheep at the top of the Kachina chair, or they bring their binoculars and look across at Wheeler Peak,” says Rominger. But he notes that these sheep are nutritionally stressed during winter because less food is available. He urges viewers to avoid actions that could disturb the animals.

Thankfully, two of the lower elevation herds in northern New Mexico are easier to spot, even in winter. Bighorn sheep are frequently seen on the road between Questa and Red River (Route 38). See the sidebar for tips on safe viewing.

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument offers other viewing options, including at all three bridges crossing the gorge. Hikers can try the West Rim trail starting at the rest area on the western side of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. Sheep also can often be spotted from the Orilla Verde Recreation Area. Bureau of Land Management Wildlife Biologist Pam Herrera Olivas recommends starting early in the morning before the sheep bed down for the day.

So kick off those quarantine blues. And as you return to the warmth of your home after observing these magnificent animals, be thankful that you don’t have to spend your winter foraging for food on a freezing windswept mountaintop.

Bighorn sheep are visible in the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument. Photo by Caitlin Ruhl courtesy of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Safety tips

  • Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep are wild animals that are nutritionally stressed in the winter. Keep a safe distance to protect yourself and minimize additional stress on the sheep.
  • Unleashed dogs are particularly stressful to sheep. Keep dogs on a leash.
  • Vehicles sometimes collide with sheep on Route 38 between Questa and Red River. The road is narrow in places, so proceed with caution.
  • When viewing bighorn sheep on Route 38, a spokesman for the New Mexico Department of Transportation advises motorists to pull off the road, such as in pullouts or Forest Service recreation areas. Avoid stopping in the road.

One thought on “Big horns, big viewing

  1. I love reading about this – and seeing the bighorns! But I might have to wait for warmer weather since I don’t have a good wool coat.

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