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A breakdown of all four sheep species

Four sheep species in North America

Jump to: Dall Sheep Rocky Mtn Bighorn Stone Sheep Desert Bighorn

Earlier in 2016 I wrote an article that covered mental toughness and the various situations every hunter faces. I hope all of you enjoyed the last article; it was great reading all of your comments. I took that with me into the 2016 hunting season and reminded myself of it from time to time when I was lacking the motivation or physical ability and overcame it through mental toughness.

I often get asked what's it like to hunt all four of the different sheep species. Are they all alike and pose the same challenges? The beauty about sheep hunting is that every new hunt experience, is one more to learn from. I continue to learn after each adventure I go on, and also enjoy listening from those who have experienced their own sheep hunting adventures. I sat down and thought about it myself after being fortunate to have hunted all four of the species myself. I composed some information what I hope will provide some insight into each sheep species.

Mountain sheep

In my eyes, sheep are one of the most majestic mountain animals on this planet. Mountain sheep are sought after by thousands of hunters every year. They hold a special spot in the heart of hunters and are pursued by many year after year. If you have hunted sheep, you know the blood boiling addiction that takes you captive. If you haven’t hunted sheep yet, I can guarantee that the day you do, you won't look back—you’ll be held captive by the pure adrenaline addiction that overcomes all sheep hunters.

Sheep hunters run the gamut: some are planning for their first ever hunt and others have been hunting sheep for over 40 years. The theme that ties them all together is that all of these hunters carry the same passion. But some find that hunting and eventually taking just one sheep isn’t enough and soon find themselves pursuing what’s called the Grand Slam of North American Wild Sheep (Four North American Wild Sheep - FNAWS).

Rocky Mountain bighorn, Desert bighorn, Stone sheep and Dall sheep make up the four sheep species recognized as the FNAWS and are spread out from north in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Alaska to south of the border in the deserts of old Mexico.

Nathan French sheep hunting quote
Hopefully, my insight into each individual sheep species and my experiences will give you some advantage to take with you when you pursue one of these amazing animals yourself. My experiences are coming from Canadian hunts and Mexico, I have yet to hunt the states but soon hope to.

First things first: Let's take a peek into each sheep’s environment and find out what we can expect to experience on a hunt.



Dall sheep (Ovis dalli)
 

Nathan French and client with a Dall sheep
Nathan guided this client to an archery dall sheep.

Dall sheep inhabit the Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, Alaska and the northwest corner of British Columbia. They tend to be one of the smallest of the four species of sheep and are known for their pure white color. That is pretty standard information. So let's jump in deeper.

Dall sheep can be hunted in the following areas

  • Alaska
  • British Columbia
  • Yukon
  • Northwest Territories

What's it like hunting them?

I've heard over and over, “Oh, they’re white, they must be easy to see and hunt” and “anyone can kill a dall sheep.” While I may not argue with these statements, I will say that they can be spotted at greater distances while feeding on a grassy hill, they can also be hidden ghosts that disappear quickly and, somehow, blend into odd places.

In some parts of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, the populations are doing very well. So numbers are to your advantage and hence the higher percentage of success for Dall’s when compared to other species.

What types of terrain can we expect?

Mountain terrain for Dall sheep

Most of the terrain that I have guided in has been relatively open and easy in terms of hiking and glassing—unlike other areas of British Columbia like burnt timber or coastal Devil's Club. Usually in Dall sheep country you’re hiking in very little vegetation and the only thing holding you back is your own personal fitness. I've seen bands of rams as large as 40 together as well as lone monarchs seeking peace and tranquillity.

Dall sheep standing near rocky cliffs

But don’t think going on a dall sheep hunt is a walk in the park. Some of the gnarliest and steepest mountains hold these white treasures. Like anywhere, you have your rolling green hills and you have your steep rugged peaks. I’ve sat and wondered why in the heck is a sheep bedded in the worst spot possible, where just a few miles away is a nice grassy hillside. If you've hunted Dall sheep, I know you know what I mean.

I've definitely had days in the mountains where I've wished the day would end and I would be laying in my tent. Buck brush and willows like to grow in the lower valleys and when you’re making your midnight excursion back to spike camp after a long day of stalking or ridge walking, these little ankle biters are really the last thing you want to deal with. You'll easily find your patience tested at least one point during the hunt.

What challenges will we face?

Dall sheep hunting terrain

So, what are the challenges? Let's remember that we are hunting sheep and their eyesight will always give them an advantage. Sheep can pick you out so quickly and efficiently that, sometimes, it blows your mind and makes you so frustrated. Once a sheep locks onto you, they don't forget.

I've had a stare down match with rams that felt like an eternity. They didn’t move a muscle the entire time and their eyes felt like they were glaring into my soul. I've had rams in the Yukon spot us riding a mile down the valley and blow off the hillside to the next mountain range.

Because of the open terrain that they live in, closing the distance is an acquired skill. You must have patience. Most of the time, you’ll have to wait for hours until they move into an area that allows you to get close for a shot.

Glassing the boulders for Dall sheep

After all the open terrain, then you can get into the steep rugged boulders that the Northwest Territories are so famous for. Miles upon miles of terrain that is jammed with boulder on top of boulders. It’s your very own game of hopscotch. The difficult part is hoping they are solid and not going to shift. This can be pretty unnerving, and very quickly you can go from hiking, to face planting.

Dall sheep horns closeup

Based upon all of the Dall hunts I've been on, the average distance my clients have shot at is 260 yards. I've had some shoot at 20 yards, others at 500 yards; all were within the hunter's own personal limits.

You can start hunting Dall sheep in the Northwest Territories July 15 and in the Yukon on Aug. 1. Don't let the summer months fool you. I've experienced 6” of snowfall in July as well as 100 degree temperatures. The weather will always keep you on your toes and try to slow you down.



Rocky Mountain bighorn (Ovis canadensis)

Nathan French and client with a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep

From their heavy horn bases and big stocky bodies, to the pine and spruce smelling horns, these majestic Rocky mountain bighorn sheep carry their horns around like a crowned king. Located from western Canada to south of New Mexico, they may be the most well known of the mountain sheep. Yet, what we might think we know about them, we quickly find out isn’t as much as we think once we first decide to hunt them.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep be hunted in the following areas

What's it like hunting them?

You know the saying “a needle in a haystack?” When it comes to hunting Rocky Mountain bighorns, be prepared to sit and glass one hillside for an entire day. Note: All of my experience with this particular type of bighorn comes from hunting bighorns in British Columbia and Alberta.

In British Columbia, picture a mountain covered in thick spruce, pine timber and rugged intertwined cliffs. Now place yourself one to two miles across from that hillside, trying to find that one dream ram. Easy? It’s the ultimate game of patience and persistence. Bighorns in British Columbia live in the timber; that’s their life and their safety. Of course, they wander in and out into the open, but, most of the time, you’ll find a band of rams tucked in the safety of the trees or the shadows of the cliffs.

Close up photo of a rocky mountain bighorn sheep

My favorite story comes from my neighbor who has hunted bighorns his entire life. He used to spend the whole six week bighorn season in the mountains hunting. He spiked out day after day and hunted his hot spots; he had learned where the rams hung out over the years. While he harvested 20 rams in his day, and some pretty impressive ones to boot, one story always stood out to me.

He could hear the rams butting heads, claiming their dominance, but not once did they step out in the open. He tried multiple angles of attack to hike into the thunderous hits, but with so much timber and the disadvantage of his eyesight versus theirs, not to mention that he had to make the judgement of whether or not it was a legal ram, it took many attempts to hunt those rams. But as a wise patient sheep hunter, eventually, his time paid off and a ram made a mistake. When he shot, 18 rams burst out of the woodwork and ran over the skyline to the next basin. 18 rams!

That story has stuck with me from day one of pursuing bighorns myself and while I guided. It's always reminded me not to give up and to constantly look. If 18 rams can hide for six weeks in 1 small basin, how many have I missed in vast valleys?

What types of terrain can we expect?

Mountain terrain for rocky mountain bighorn sheep

From the rugged heavens of the mountain tops where the air is thin to the valley bottoms of the rivers down below, Rocky Mountain bighorns claim all different types of terrain as home.

British Columbia rocky mountain bighorn sheep terrain

The majority of British Columbia bighorn country is thick and sparse timber with cliffs and scree while as a comparison - Montana’s Missouri River breaks are mainly open hillsides. Alberta also varies, yet is more open with grassy slopes and cliffs. Remember that regardless of the terrain, we all face the same challenges.

What challenges do we face?

Glassing for rocky mountain bighorn sheep

We’re still talking sheep right? So… everything is a challenge, but seriously, it seems that Rocky Mountain bighorns have phenomenal eye sight; they will spot you every time. If it's not the ram you’re after that spots you, it will be the ewe on the ridge beside him or the young ram that was intentionally put up higher than the rest of the band to watch out for predators. They will test your stealth and cunningness to get in close to judge the ram for legality and test your abilities to seal the deal.

With that said, be ready to hike your whole camp in and out of the mountains. In most cases, bighorns in British Columbia do not live next to the road unless you are driving through a National Park and a good percentage of areas have motor vehicle restrictions. So lace up those boots and be prepared for hiking through miles of old game trails, thick brushy avalanche chutes and creek bottom, rugged steep cliffs and steep scree side hills. Do not forget that a lot of British Columbia’s bighorn country is very dry and finding water is next near to impossible. When you have just hiked up 4,000 vertical feet to get into the country they live, the last thing you want to do is hike back down for water. So you've guessed it, you need to pack it on you back. And trust me this is not light. Water can add 40Ibs very quickly on top of your already 50Ibs of gear. Be sparing and don’t spill it, or you’ll be hiking down sooner than desired.

Continued below. 

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You also need to be prepared to glass for an endless number of hours into timbered and cliffed slopes in hopes of that one ram flashing you with his white backside or the sun gleaming off the crown of his horns.

Another big challenge is being mentally prepared to stalk a ram multiple times after getting into range and glassing him for hours to make certain he is legal in the region you’re hunting.
 

Dustin Roe and Nathan French guided client to this Rocky mountain bighorn sheep
Dustin Roe of Backcountry BC and Beyond and Nathan French guided a client to this Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.

I may be biased, but in my eyes, Rocky Mountain bighorns are the most challenging of the four sheep species. Remember, though, that with challenges, comes great reward!

The hard work will pay off and one day you’ll harvest a legal ram. You maybe solo, or maybe with a buddy. So the pack that used to weigh 60 Ibs, will now be well over 100 lbs if you’re trying to pack out an entire sheep in one trip. The horns by themselves can weigh 30 Ibs. This may entail several trips out, or one of the heaviest packs you will experience. But I’ll tell you, it's the most fun you can have!



Stone sheep (Ovis dalli stonei)
 

Nathan French with his giant Stone sheep
Nathan with a Stone sheep that he personally shot. You can read the story here.

Stone sheep might top the list for most hunters as the most beautiful of all the sheep. With color ranging from almost white to chocolate brown to black, every Stone sheep is one of a kind. A part of the thinhorn sheep family like the Dall, Stone sheep are exclusive to Canada and are found in Northern British Columbia and southern Yukon.

Stone sheep can be hunted in the following areas

  • British Columbia
  • Yukon

What's it like hunting them?
 

Mountain habitat for Stone sheep
Typical sheep country in British Columbia.

Surprise, surprise: another sheep that easily qualifies for the saying “a needle in a haystack.” Starting to see some similarities?

Every year, hunters pursue these magnificent animals in hopes of harvesting a mature ram. Yet, in those dreams, challenges need to be overcome before a ram is taken. Most of the British Columbia Stone sheep country is only accessible by plane or horses. Some areas are you might be able to hunt from the highway or a logging road, but the majority of Stone sheep are found deeper within the mountains. This is a hunt that must be planned well in advance for both gear and cost. You must account for the weight of all of your gear and the plane dropping you off usually won't be back for 10 to 14 days. It's a photographer’s heaven and a hiker's worst nightmare; heavy packs and endless miles of hiking in thick rugged country.

During the allocated hunting season, you can expect to encounter either hot weather or torrential rain followed by fall blizzards that can be dangerous.

When sitting and glassing, look for that rock that seems out of place. Don't forget to look up high on the mountain cliffs, but also make sure to take the time to glass down low in the buck brush and timber. You will be doing lots of glassing and, depending on the area you are hunting, lots of hiking or horseback riding.

What types of terrain can we expect?

Stone sheep hunting habitat

From high mountain peaks and plateaus to glaciers and the low buck brush and timbered creek bottoms, Stone sheep wander the north and claim home in all types of terrain.

Yet, northern British Columbia has a type of terrain that if you haven't experienced before, it might cause you to learn new words of frustration. Hundreds of square miles of Stone sheep country is covered in old forest fire burns and plenty of blow down. Forest fires bring great habitat for sheep and new growth, but with that brings hours of frustration when trying to hike or travel with a pack string or backpack. Some areas are so thick with brush and dead timber that it can take a backpack hunter hours to cover just a few short miles. Hunting Stone sheep in this type of area will intensify your deep desire to hunt these animals while also making you wonder what the heck you got yourself into in the first place.

Not every terrain where Stone sheep live is like this. They also inhabit more of the open slopes and hang out on the high rugged ridges that run for miles. Stone sheep have an amazing ability to hide, even if they don't have the timber or cover, which keeps hunters searching.

What challenges do we face?
 

Nathan French and Robert Bentley with a stone sheep
Nathan French guided Robert Bentley to this giant Stone sheep.

If spotting a rock colored sheep in a pile of cliffs isn't one, you’ve accomplished something. If I could give you any type of advice, all I’d say is slow down, sit down and glass. So many guys race through the mountains like they would a Dall hunt, and they miss crucial terrain that I guarantee sheep call home. In the times I’ve hunted Stone sheep, I know I’ve missed spotting sheep. But I’ve now taught myself to sit and glass a spot until I have enough peace of mind that I’ve glassed the area to the best of my ability.

This past season, my words came into practice and it showed myself just how hidden and elusive stones can be. I sat for an entire afternoon and the first few hours of the next morning glassing a basin that I was camped on. I was on the left hand side of the basin and my goal was to get to an area to the right, but would have to make a big “u” shape to get there. I became content that I had glassed everything and with my hunter next to me, we dropped down into the basin and across it to the next pass. I went back to sitting patiently and glassing. Hours past by and no sheep, so I continued to my desired location for the night. I must have only walked 200 yards when I stopped and did my usually routine of waiting for my hunter and in the process glassing the country. Lifting my binoculars to the basin I had just spent 10 hours glassing, there sat a monarch ram enjoying the sun! WHAT! How did I miss it? Later after harvesting the ram, I found out that where he was bedded, you couldn't see it from anywhere but this one spot. My lesson was clear. You can never glass to much. I could have been content that I had glassed that basin enough, and never raised my binoculars to look again, but I’ve always been one to continue searching.

The types of terrain these sheep live in will be a test of all levels—both physically and mentally. I was hunting Stone sheep during the late season after my Northwest Territories season wrapped up. I hiked off the highway about seven miles and got into some big long valleys. There was a point in my travels that my inRreach read back to me that I was covering 0.6 miles per hour. Now, looking back, I wish I had a recording of my thoughts while I was entangled in that hell hole. But, after some persistence, I finally broke out of the thicker stuff and was able to find 84 sheep on that trip.

Hunting Stone sheep can probably go down as the most remote and true backpack hunt a guy can do for sheep. At times you’re truly a prisoner to the mountains. The plane has left you, and you can be 100-200 miles from the nearest town. It’s you, your gear, your own two feet and a heartbeat trying to tackle the mission ahead of you.



Desert bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis nelsoni)
 

Mexico Desert bighorn sheep
Desert bighorn sheep. Photo credit: Dustin Roe

This is the one sheep species that doesn’t live in Canada except for the California bighorn, which is a subspecies that lives in British Columbia’s desert country and other small portions of the U.S..

Desert bighorns are the smallest bodied of the four sheep and live all the way from the top of the U.S. to the peninsula of Baja, Mexico. These sheep always impress me. I have the least amount of experience hunting Desert sheep, but the time I have spent hunting them I will remember for a long time. I’m hoping to get another chance to chase them this winter!

Desert bighorns can be hunted in the following areas

What's it like hunting them?

When many think of Mexico, most picture heat and lots of it! If it's not the weather, it's the spicy food loaded with hot chilies.

I hunted Desert sheep in the Baja area of Mexico and I will base my insight from there. I do know from friends who have pursued them on Tiburon Island to the states of Arizona and Nevada and the conditions sound very much alike.

Sleeping in desert bighorn sheep country

Expect hot arid climates where it seems like everything wants to bite and sting you. If it's not the cactus giving you a pleasant stab and jab, it's the thought of scorpions and tarantulas crawling over you at night. Water is almost nonexistent. It makes you wonder how the sheep flourish in such extreme conditions. It's an experience unlike any other sheep hunt; it has such a different approach to it. It really becomes a fond memory that you'll want to keep doing over and over.

What types of terrain can we expect?

Glassing for Desert bighorns in Mexico

From oceanfront mountains to high elevation peaks, these sheep can be found picking their way through the desolate landscape. With the hot dusty rock and miles of cactus, the Baja was an eye opener for me in terms of sheep hunting. It’s a place where nothing shades you from the sun and you wonder if nightfall will ever come so you can finally get a break from the heat. Then once darkness finally shows up, you shiver all night waiting for daylight to break.

The maze of valleys carved by water through the years and the mountain peaks in Desert sheep country is incredible. All of it is etched into a landscape that you can sit and look at and almost see the story being told.

There is a lot of elevation gain and loss while hiking and you’ll most likely burn the rubber off your boots from the heat and desolate rocky landscape. The rock is both hot and sharp and sand tries to find its way into places it doesn’t belong. Make sure you bring a seat pad; when you sit and glass for long hours looking for the hidden rams, your backside will get hot and cut up.

What challenges do we face?
 

Desert sheep hunting terrain
Photo credit: Brady Miller

I don't do too well in high heat and, if you’re like me, I'm sure this will be a big challenge. It's shocking, but you do acclimatize somewhat quickly and the sun becomes less of a distraction and more of an obstacle. Looking at a valley or bowl for that lone ram can become almost impossible with the heat waves formed by the sun during the heat of the day. You'll want to get up early and do as much glassing as possible before the terrain becomes impossible for glassing longer distances.

The lack of water will quickly knock you down if you don't properly prepare and hydrate. Miles are covered on a backpack desert hunt and most of the contents of your pack that you might take on a different sheep hunt are emptied and replaced by Gatorade and water. You'll seem to drink your weight in water quickly and feel like you still want more.

Then, the challenge of finding the sheep comes into play because they are a dusty brown, and they hide incredibly well in the rock, cactus and sand. You need to look for the famous out of place shape or the white butt or the shine off the horns. Yet, after successfully locating the ram, next comes the challenge of stalking. Often, I found rams at the end of a valley or in a bowl. You’ll sit there and think about the few options you actually have to get close. I always found the rams to be positioned near an escape route. It seemed they always had the upper hand. I can see where hunting terrain that is more open and with less cliffs would be an advantage. With keen senses, these rams challenge the best of us!

While down in Desert sheep country the last time, we were chasing Desert rams with a bow. We saw rams everyday and made at least one to two stalks a day. These rams got the better hand on several occasions by slipping away into a spot no hunter dare go, or sensing our presence because of swirling winds in the back of a basin. With lots of persistence and energy, we made it happen.

Conclusion

The country sheep live in leaves me with a burning passion to pursue and guide these beautiful animals for years to come. With wide flaring horns, to deep low slung broomers, you'll set your eyes on these sheep and wish you never had to leave. Your legs will grow tired from the miles endured but your heart will leave fulfilled from the journey.

I hope you all enjoyed my insight which may be different from the way you do things, but what's important is that however we go about it, remember to constantly enjoy the adventure. We are blessed to pursue such an amazing animal. The kill is the bonus, the true trophy is the memories we take away.

 

 

 

2 Comments

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Dennis B. - posted 4 months ago on 01-24-2017 05:49:45 pm
Alaska

What a fine and comprehensive read....as great and grand as the sheep truly are!

yancee
Yancee H. - posted 4 months ago on 01-26-2017 08:48:06 pm
Saratoga Springs, Utah
goHUNT INSIDER

Fantastic article.