Bighorn Sheep, or Mountain Goat?
There is often some confusion among newcomers to Colorado between bighorn sheep and mountain goats. I often overhear this at places like Mount Evans, where you could very likely see both in the same day, or maybe even at the same time! I’ll admit, I was a little “fuzzy” on the differences when I started on my journey.
One of my first photos of bighorn sheep in Colorado came from Ouray, where these ewes were snacking on a hay bale along the side of the road. Whether that bale of hay fell off a truck, or whether someone put it out just for the sheep I couldn’t say, but these sheep were glad for it either way. At first glance, you might see the short horns and think “goat”, but these are indeed bighorn sheep ewes.
Both male and female sheep and goats have horns, but notice that the horns of the goat above are jet black, and grow upwards and back, not down and around the eye like the sheep. The coat of the mountain goat is white and shaggy compared to the short, brown hair of the bighorn sheep.
Another big clue is range – the mountain goat is only found in a few high altitude regions of Colorado. If you are at lower elevations, such as the canyon country near Salida or Colorado National Monument, it’s pretty likely you are seeing bighorn sheep, not mountain goats. The same is true for Rocky Mountain National Park, which is not home to any mountain goats.
I’ve photographed sheep in quite a few corners of Colorado, but Waterton Canyon remains one of the best places to see these animals. The sheep are often near, or even on, the road, and you can get some great shots without hauling a monster lens along. It’s no secret, so expect some company, but since the road is gated you’ll need to a few miles in to find the sheep, and this keeps the crowds down.
Another great place to see the “desert” subspecies of bighorn sheep is Colorado National Monument. Sheep are frequently seen along Rimrock Drive, so keep your eyes open on your way to the visitor’s center.
Whether it’s sheep or goats, you really can’t go wrong, both are fun to watch and photograph, and a couple of the most accessible subjects for wildlife photography in Colorado.
Nice shots and thanks for the tips! (Get it?) Anyway, what I’m wondering is why mountain goats are so limited in their distribution. Do you know if it’s related to climate?
I saw this article on 9news last year and apparently mountain goats aren’t native to Colorado! That likely explains their limited distribution, but I imagine they’d do well in many parts of the state if transplanted. https://www.9news.com/article/news/local/next/our-minds-are-blown-learning-mountain-goats-are-colorado-transplants/73-587387675
That’s an interesting question to ponder. Why haven’t mountain goats established themselves in Rocky Mountain National Park after this amount of time? I have seen photos of them from the Indian Peaks Wilderness, but as far as I know, there is no population established there, either. There are some clues here:
It seems that the habitat between Mount Evans and Indian Peaks/James Peak/RMNP would be similar enough. Maybe it is range fidelity? Or a lack of “licks” to allow them to expand?
I’ll have to keep digging!
It looks like up in Grand Teton, they are trying to get rid of the mountain goats. They compete with the bighorn sheep and are not good for the balance there: https://www.9news.com/article/life/animals/grand-teton-park-to-begin-killing-invasive-mountain-goats/73-6f5c9b87-3882-4205-972a-e3b7b2c00d6a