Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep - South Dakota

In researching bighorn sheep in South Dakota I find that the original bighorn sheep native to the state, the Audubon bighorn sheep, became extinct in 1916 from uncontrolled hunting. At the time of the article I'm looking at, which is not dated, there were three separate herds in South Dakota: one in Badlands National Park, one in Custer State Park and one in Spring Creek Canyon in the Black Hills. The sheep in Custer State Park were transplanted from Wyoming in 1964, the sheep in Badlands were transplanted from Colorado in 1964 and the sheep in Spring Creek Canyon were transplanted from Colorado in 1991. At the time of the article it was estimated that there were 300 to 350 bighorn sheep in South Dakota among the three herds. A 2013 article estimates 300 bighorn sheep in South Dakota: (1) A Rapid City herd with three sub-herds estimated at 75 to 100, found in Rapid Creek, Spring Creek and Hill City areas; (2) An Elk Mountain herd with an estimated 75 to 100 sheep; (3) A Custer State Park herd with approximately 30 sheep after a pneumonia die-off in 2004 to 2005; and (4) An estimated 100 sheep in Badlands National Park. 

On our September visit to South Dakota we had a bighorn sheep bonanza. As alluded to above, pneumonia killed 80% of the bighorn sheep in Custer State Park and only about 30 remain. So, we felt mighty lucky to see a couple of ewe bighorn sheep in Custer State Park on the North Lame Johnny Road near Horse Camp. One had a collar (I feel sorry for those collared animals, the collar looks very bulky) and we watched them for several minutes as they sauntered through an area north of Horse Camp.
Ewe in Custer State Park.
Walking through long grass.
The collared ewe.
Our real bonanza struck in Badlands National Park. In 1964, 22 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were brought in from Pikes Peak in Colorado to a holding pen in the Pinnacles area of Badlands. In 1967, after losing 13 sheep, 14 sheep were introduced into Badlands. In 1990, the population of sheep in Badlands was estimated at 130 to 200. In 1994, it was estimated that the carrying capacity of the Pinnacles area was 97 to 170 sheep. So, 16 sheep were captured in Pinnacles and transported to the Cedar Pass area of Badlands. Around the year 2000, it was estimated that there were 58 to 74 sheep in Badlands, after a die-off. It was estimated that Badlands could hold a population of 300 to 400, but that that number could not be obtained through the existing population - more sheep needed to be introduced. A 2009 article notes that bighorn sheep from Taos, New Mexico were transplanted to Badlands in 2004. As indicated, an estimated 100 currently live in Badlands and we saw 25 of them, a quarter of the entire population. 

Our first sighting of 3 was at the Pinnacles Overlook. They were grazing alongside the road. We drove down the Loop Road to the Visitor Center and then back again and saw the same three in the same area on the way out. One appears to be a young ram, one a ewe and one a lamb. 
The one on the left appears to have small testicles, the only reason we thought it might be a ram. Otherwise it looked like a ewe.
Grazing near the road at Pinnacle Overlook.
We had some beautiful background as they perched near the ledge of the canyon.

Our next sighting, a single ewe, was a distance down the road. We watched her for a minute or two before she disappeared over the rim of the canyon.
Our next sighting was a remarkable 10 bighorn sheep in the Cedar Pass area, after the Fossil Exhibit Trail and before the Visitor Center. 9 sheep were down in a recess off the road and a young ram was separated by a short distance just off the road. After we visited the Visitor Center, we went back out the same way and saw the same herd again, this time traversing a cliff from the recess they were in to another recess on the other side. My first pictures only shows four at the top of the cliff, but when we first saw them there were about 7 or 8. By the time I got my camera ready and got out of the car, most of them had made it over to the other side. After they disappeared to the other side, we drove ahead and saw them again in the next recess, but quite a ways from the road.
8 of the bighorn sheep are captured in this picture.
All 9 of the bighorn sheep in the recess were captured in this picture.
This young ram was separated from them near the road.
His horns are not big, but his testicles reveal him as a ram.
On the drive back out, we came across this wonderful sight of the sheep crossing over a cliff.
The ram had joined them at this point.
The sheep on the other side of the cliff. 
Not to be outdone, our next sighting was 11 sheep. I'm not sure exactly where we were, but it was somewhere in the Pinnacles, but well before the Pinnacles Outlook. First we stopped for 3 sheep grazing near the road. Then we noticed a man off the side of the road looking down into the canyon. So we got out of our vehicle and walked over to see what he was looking at and were delighted to see another 8 sheep perched on the cliffs below. I was startled to see the young sheep maneuvering on the cliff, several times having pieces of the clay break off and causing them to stumble briefly. I wonder if bighorn sheep are afraid of heights? If I was doing what they were doing and stumbled, I would be petrified of falling. Eventually the sheep on the lower cliffs scrambled up higher to firmer terra firma and we saw one fairly large lamb trying to suckle.  
3 sheep grazing near the road.
One of them had a collar.
Our view into the canyon revealed bighorn sheep on the side of a cliff. 
I marvel that they can traverse this steep, loose terrain with hooves.

It was amazing to see them haphazardly scaling the cliff.

We saw this lamb trying to suckle from her mother. 

1 comment:

  1. The big thrill of the trip was seeing those sheep climbing up what looked like an almost vertical cliff in Badlands. Spectacular. I wonder how many fall and die? They were amazingly sure-footed.