Return to the Wild - Evolving perspectives on Canadian wildlife
Bighorn sheep can be found in the Canadian Rockies, interior British Columbia and in the U.S.

Did you know?

The bighorn sheep can lose 20 to 25 percent of its body weight over the winter and gain it back again the following season.

Scientific name: Ovis canadensis
Average weight: 110 kg–130 kg (male)
53 kg–91 kg (female)
Average lifespan: 8-12 years (male)
10-15 years (female)
A bighorn sheep stands with a backdrop of blue Alberta sky.

Our changing understanding

The story of the bighorn sheep is as curved as are its magnificent horns, prized by hunters. Traditionally one of the most sought-after big game in North America, the bighorn has gone from over a million strong at the start of the 19th century to around 34,000.

In the first mention of the bighorn in the magazine, in the 1950s, the author was singing its praises as a “mountain animal par excellence” and “the most beautiful big-game trophy ever taken on this continent.” The piece also had a notable picture of a related species, the Stone sheep. This particular specimen was a record breaker at the time for its massive horns, but more interesting was the fact that the sheep in the picture was stuffed and mounted — not an image commonly seen in today’s Canadian Geographic.

Taxidermy in subsequent articles focuses on efforts to stop poachers, including taxidermists’ reports of suspicious catches. This shows a shift in perception from that of animals being here for the benefit of hunters to that of wildlife officers trying to put a stop to illegal poaching.

The most recent articles describe a bit of an uneasy truce between conservationists and hunters, with a new movement by, oddly enough, hunter-conservationists. As an example, groups in Western Canada purchase land to secure habitat for bighorn sheep (and sometimes elk). It’s not a perfect balance yet, however, because when additional money is needed to study issues such as low numbers of mature rams, it doesn’t always appear — but the hunters continue hunting. One management program at a mine near Jasper, Alta., is successful, with booming numbers of bighorn sheep. But biologists fear the sheep’s genetic variability is decreasing, making for a less hardy species in the future.