While there is a ton of wildlife in the park, we didn’t take a lot of time with them. Luckily they are habituated to human activity and pretty blasé about the road so that many of the big grazers were right up next to it and even in it some of the time. Of course with things like bison you don’t take your chances, but the sheep were pretty easy to be around. This is the only bison shot I have that is worth a darn. There were others in the same group, but none were doing anything more interesting than grazing. We did stop for some others on another day, but the sun was so bright that the shadows are too harsh and blocked so I haven’t processed them. But hey, one is better than none.
There has been a big effort to bring back and strengthen the Bighorn Sheep population within the park and it looks like it’s working although numbers are no where near what they were before Europeans arrived to kill them all directly and to introduce domestic sheep diseases which did the rest. There are around 250 Bighorns in the park although that number may be lower due to a recent bacterial infection that has been killing ewes at about 50% and lambs at a higher rate. They can only accurately track the ewe deaths because they are the only ones to be fitted with radio collars like this one –
Obviously we’re parked on the roadside and were photographing the sheep on the hill across the road, but then along comes Number 13 bellowing and calling to her flock and moving the stragglers to the other side with the rest. Very responsible and vigilant. Gotta keep everyone safe and together. Bighorn sheep live in separate herds according to gender. If a lamb is female, she will stay with her natal herd, but if male, he leaves or is driven out and joins a bachelor herd. I didn’t get any shots of the sheep on the hill that I like. They’re basically the same color and don’t stand out so scroll down for one lying in some grass.
They are grazers like the bison, but have greater agility for climbing on steep terrain. Like other grazers they have four-chambered stomachs and chew cud. The current 250-ish population in the Badlands in South Dakota began in the 1960s as transplants from the Pikes Peak area of Colorado and have been supplemented by other out of state herds over the years as the numbers have plummeted from time to time. Since there are no natural predators of adult sheep in the park, the causes are disease or accident. Lambs are mostly killed by falls, although the coyotes could easily take an unwary one.
We didn’t see a bachelor herd, but a bachelor duo and here is the big boy –
Isn’t he amazing? The horns are about 20-22 inches across and look so heavy and massive it’s a wonder they can carry them around. This is the same male; the first shot taken while driving out for sunrise, the second driving out for sunset. He and his buddy didn’t venture far from the road – I had to crop out the curb in the first shot!
The horns are a way to age a Bighorn ram – they become mature at around 4 years and begin putting on thickness and density in the horns themselves. The first dark line is called the 4-Year line and you can clearly see that in the horns on this ram. The thick extra band of dark horn starts there and goes right to the forehead. It almost looks braided and I bet it’s very tough given the fights they have. Both the horn and the ram grow more when young than mature and the ‘growth rings’ on the horns get farther apart. They are put on in times of stress – when breeding urges and fights for dominance take over and the ram doesn’t eat properly. The ring directly corresponds to their breeding seasons – Desert Bighorns put it down in the summer, Rocky Mountain Bighorns in the winter.
The very first part of the horns the rams grow is called the lamb tip. The lamb tip gets worn off over time in a process called brooming. This can occur as a byproduct of fighting, but most of it is deliberate. As the horns grow and curve they would block the animals vision as you can see with this guy. So they will jam the tips into rock crevices and break them off, or grind/sand them down against other rocks.
I wish he’d given me a better pose, but at least he didn’t run away like the Pronghorn antelopes did. I almost got a shot of a mother and baby, but they were too quick! This little one was very willing to let me get close. It’s a young cottontail that would fit in your hand and I think it, and siblings, were living under one of the boardwalks at an overlook. Quite used to humans it let me get about 8 feet away for this portrait. I was glad I had the 35-100mm already on the camera and that it has a constant f/2.8 aperture. I needed it since the sun was below the horizon.
I wish we’d seen some jackrabbits, but we’d have had to go out into the grassland for that and we didn’t. I did see a coyote loping through some of it and tried for a photo, but it was just too far away to come out well. We didn’t stop for the Prairie Dogs either, but saw plenty from the Jeeps as we drove. We even saw a hawk with either a rabbit or a P-dog in its talons.
So all in all it was a good trip. I have a lot of photos I’m proud of and I’m glad I went. I’d consider going again with some other ideas in mind – wildlife and more hiking if it’s possible in the park. Mostly this would have to be off trail which, given the terrain and weather, could be hazardous. The longest trail in the park is 10 miles and all the others are 1/4 to 3/4 of a mile – just short walks to viewpoints. Still it could be cool in places.
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