Today, bighorn sheep freely roam the western United States and Canada, from the northernmost reaches of the Rocky Mountains all the way down to the deserts of Arizona and California, and even into Mexico. Along some of the nation's scenic routes, there are marked stops where motorists can stretch their legs and view bighorn sheep in their natural habitats. Much more exotic than the typical barnyard sheep, the bighorn sheep sports - what else? - big horns as its most distinctive feature. Although females' horns are smaller than the dramatic horns the ram boasts, they can still be spotted from a significant distance.
Bighorn sheep are an important part of the culture of the western United States. The bighorn sheep is the state animal of Colorado, and have long been important to native people of mountain regions. Bighorns provided food, clothing, and tools for certain tribes, particularly after the invention of the bow and arrow. Additionally, Native Americans often depicted bighorn sheep in drawings and sculptures, indicating their cultural importance.
If you live in an area that bighorn sheep call home, chances are you have had the privilege of laying eyes on the creatures in the wild. They are quite common, and seven subspecies have been identified. Bighorn sheep weren't always so easy to find, though. At the turn of the twentieth century, around 1900, bighorn sheep were reasonably scarce. They weren't officially considered endangered, since the Endangered Species Act wasn't passed until 1973, but they numbered only a couple of thousand. The threat to the species was largely human created. People hunted bighorn sheep, ranching threatened their habitats, and diseases brought to the U.S. by European sheep spread throughout bighorn populations.
The high numbers of bighorn sheep in the United States today represents a great success story. When the U.S. Congress created the National Park Service in 1916, a program of land conservation was born. This meant that bighorn sheep habitats in the West were protected, and the species could begin to be reintroduced into protected areas without threat of being hunted. Additionally, domestic sheep ranching became less popular during the first half of the 20th century, resulting in less competition for bighorns. In the 1970s, the Bureau of Land Management stopped allowing domestic sheep to graze in some areas native to bighorns, further reducing competition.
The Arizona Boy Scouts
The success of the American bighorn sheep population is also due, in part, to the efforts of the Boy Scouts of Arizona. Starting in 1939, the Arizona Boy Scouts began a campaign to save the species by raising funds and awareness. As a result, there are two wildlife refuges in Arizona that were specifically created to protect bighorn sheep. Both are still in existence and, combined, cover over 1.5 million acres.
Bighorn Sheep Today and Tomorrow
The recovery of bighorn sheep has been dramatic. In fact, the recovery has been so successful that, in 2009, a few bighorn sheep hunting permits were issued by California to keep the population in check! This is a positive development, but it is still important to be mindful of the issues that threaten bighorn sheep. In order to preserve biodiversity and ensure that bighorn herds remain strong, conservation and protection should always be at the forefront of environmental discussions. This means not only regulating hunting and land use, but protecting environment from industrial threats like mining and development.