Wild sheep: North America's ultimate big game challenge

Wild sheep: North America’s ultimate big game challenge

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Although there are an endless number of places to hunt in the world, hunters who live and hunt in North America are truly blessed. The popularity of our hunting culture, the variety of not only wild game but entire ecosystems, and the management and availability of both public and private land makes our continent one of the true jewels of the hunting world. Big-game hunters here have the opportunity to hunt almost anything, almost everywhere. We have whitetail deer, blacktail deer, and mule deer. We have black bear, elk, moose, and antelope. Yet, of all these big-game options, no other animal is pursued with such fanatical devotion as the wild sheep.

Sheep are considered by many to be the pinnacle of North America’s big game. There are three primary species on the continent and another half-dozen subspecies. Pursuing any of them is the ultimate test of a hunter’s strength, endurance, and hunting prowess. They are extremely wary animals, with excellent vision, and they live in some of the most challenging terrain on the planet. Every year thousands of hunters put in for tags, hoping to get lucky enough to chase one of these magnificent creatures. Though chances of drawing a tag in most places are less than 10 percent, it is still a chance worth taking.

Sheep meat is considered one of the best wild game meats there is, and there isn’t a hunter anywhere who doesn’t fantasize about having a set of magnificently curled rams horns on the wall. Famous hunters such as Ernest Hemingway and Teddy Roosevelt pursued the animals avidly, and the renowned outdoor writer Jack O’Connor built a career on his sheep-hunting passion. Needless to say, hunting sheep is simply on a different level from other big-game pursuits, and for those hunters taking up the challenge the first step is understanding their quarry.

Bighorn sheep

The most common sheep species, the bighorn presents hunters with their best chance of bagging a big ram, with tags available in 13 states to both residents and non-residents alike. Many states have a loyalty points system, giving hunters a better chance of drawing a tag the more often they put in for one. The bighorn’s coloration ranges from mottled gray to dark brown to pale tan in the desert varieties of the species. They sport some of the largest horns of any sheep species, and a big ram can weigh well over 300 pounds. They are found primarily in the western United States, in the Rocky, Sierra Nevada, and Cascade mountain ranges, spending most of their time at elevations between 3,000 and 7,000 feet above sea level. They prefer a variety of different terrain, from bare mountaintops to thick timber, to river bottoms. Hunting them is a needle-in-a-haystack situation, though, as most of the time there will only be a few rams in a massive expanse of territory. However, once you find one, chances are you will find others—most of the time bighorns gather at the same elevation and on the same food sources at the same time.

Stone sheep

Stone sheep are considered the most beautiful of all wild sheep. Their coats are thick and luxurious, and they come in a vast assortment of colors—from deep chocolate brown to pearly white, to jet black. Each animal looks at least slightly different from another, making every stone sheep a one-of-a-kind trophy. Perhaps the most challenging draw of the sheep species, tags for stone sheep are only available in British Columbia and the Yukon Territory, and there is roughly a one percent chance of drawing a tag on your first attempt. They live in some of the most inaccessible territory on earth and most of the time hunters pursuing them need to rely on either bush planes or horses to get them into sheep country.

As their name suggests, stone sheep prefer the rocky slopes of mountains, where they live on a diet of lichens and mosses, though they will occasionally descend to more timbered areas to feed on shrubs and grasses. Hunting them is similar to hunting the bighorn in that most areas don’t hold a lot of sheep. However, unlike bighorns, once a big stone sheep ram is spotted, there is a fairly significant chance of harvesting the animal as they are notoriously less wary than other sheep due to their lack of natural predators.

Dall sheep

The king of the mountain, the Dall sheep is perhaps one of the most sought-after big-game animals on the planet. Their beautifully curled horns and snowy white coats make them truly iconic, and they live in some of the most beautiful places in the world. Dall sheep live in the northwestern part of the continent, with tags available to hunters in the Pacific Northwest and Yukon Territories, British Columbia, and Alaska. Hunters wishing for a Dall ram have a better chance of hunting them than any other sheep because of their high populations; 15-25 percent of hunters draw a tag the first time they put in for one. Like the other species of sheep, Dall sheep prefer to live in higher elevations, seeking out wide-open territories with little timber and vegetation. They tend to gather in larger groups with herds from 12 to more than 50 animals being quite common. With that said, Dall sheep prefer to live some of the gnarliest and steepest terrain North America has to offer. So while they may be easy to find, gathering together in groups as they do, hunters hoping to get into range for a shot after glassing them need to be in seriously good shape because the Dall sheep will push them to their very limit.

Wild sheep are incredibly special and iconic animals. Each species comes with a mystique—their own aura of challenge and reward—not found in any other big-game animal. Hunting them is perhaps one of the purest and most rewarding experiences of a hunter’s life.

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