Photography ©Martin Perea, courtesy of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Big Horns, Big Viewing

by Amy Mathews Amos

And you thought you were going to have it hard this coming winter! Quarantine is no fun, but it could be worse: you could be a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

New Mexico is home to eleven herds of these 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 the timberline — terrain 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. In the winter, though, they can sustain bitterly cold, hurricane force winds, according to New Mexico Department of Game and Fish biologist Dr. 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 Rominger, the highest-elevation herds actually seek out the harshest conditions.

A young big horn sheep in New Mexico
A young Ram playfully peering over a rock. Photography ©Erin Duvuvei.
Big Horn Sheep in the Rio Grande Gorge
Big Horn Sheep are visible in this time of year in the Rio Grande Gorge. Photography ©Caitlin Ruhl, courtesy of New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

“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,” so the sheep avoid the less windy sides of the mountains in the winter. Nor do they 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 peak chairlift 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 observers to avoid actions that could disturb the animals.

“Often skiers at Taos Ski Valley see bighorn sheep at the top of the Kachina peak chairlift or they bring their binoculars and look across at Wheeler Peak.”

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

The Rio Grande del Norte National Monument offers other viewing options, including the 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.

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.
  • The New Mexico Department of Transportation advises motorists to use pullouts or Forest Service recreation areas rather than stopping in the road.
Amy Mathews Amos
Contributor

Amy Mathews Amos writes about wildlife, wild lands, health, and related issues. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post,  Scientific American,  High Country News, and other outlets. You can follow her @AmyMatAm on Twitter.

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