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Species focus – Bighorn Sheep

Perhaps one of the most common animals to see in Banff and Jasper National Parks is the Bighorn Sheep.  They often hang out close to the roads and in the parking lots, making photos of these guys a pretty common commodity. This one was one of three hanging out next to the highway in May this year.

Young Bighorn Sheep standing in the snow

Young Bighorn Sheep searching for food.

What always amazes me is how people forget that these are wild animals. Sure they may look friendly as they lick the salt crusted to the parking lot behind your car, but the reality is these guys can pack a punch. Something that they begin training for right from the start.

One Bighorn Sheep headbutts the other in the shoulder.

Young Bighorn Sheep practice their fighting skills.

A few years ago, we had gone for a hike and when we returned to the parking lot we found it filled with Bighorn’s and tourists. We waited from a fair distance until they had moved past and we could get to our car without disturbing them. Other’s however, were not nearly as considerate. As we walked past I actually overheard an adult say to two kids “just go up and pet it’s back end and I’ll take a picture.” Seriously, you want your kid to pet a wild animal, when half the time people are afraid of a dog that is off leash? I couldn’t help myself so I loudly commented “Yeah, that’s a good idea, get closer to the wild animal that could turn on you.” Then I smiled to myself as the kids turned back to the adult and said “See, I told you that it wasn’t safe.”

It was a good moment, but the reality is that humans are having a pretty significant influence on Bighorn Sheep. It’s not just the roads and the parking lot and the tourists either. There is growing evidence that hunting is impacting the species.

I have no problem with subsistence hunting, hunting for food. I think there is something to be said for actually seeing the animal that your food is coming from. I hope that it creates greater awareness of our interconnections with the non-human world, as if we can actually separate the two in the first place. But trophy hunting is something completely different, and this is what is affecting the Bighorn Sheep. There is money and prestige bound up in those curling horns. The longer the horn, the further it has curled, the older that individual is. For some reason, there are people who believe that going out with a gun to take out an animal that has survived for so long comes with prestige. Talk about an unfair fight. As a consequence of this, hunters target the animals with bigger horns.

In an article in the Journal of Wildlife Management, Festa-Bianchet and his co-authors found that between 1974 and 2011 there has been a decrease in horn size, and that the horns are growing slower, resulting in the rams getting older before they are targeted by hunters. The growth seems to be linked to the environmental conditions, so those who experience better conditions grow faster and are harvested sooner. But there is selective pressure, if a ram develops quickly and is hunted sooner, he will leave fewer offspring. As a result, hunters are contributing to the disappearance of the targets they seek. And all so they can have a pair of horns on their wall? Sometimes I am disturbed by the things my species does.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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