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Close Encounters With Bighorn Sheep

Check Out The Wildlife In Waterton Canyon  

Story and photos by Reid Neureiter

For the GPHN

November and December are rut season for the resident herd of bighorn sheep in Waterton Canyon, just 40 miles southwest of Park Hill in Littleton, south of Chatfield Reservoir. The canyon features a 6.5-mile dirt road with stunning views along the South Platte River and great hiking and easy biking. Fly-fishing is popular, and wildlife is abundant – including bear, beaver, mule deer, and osprey. 

But the canyon is perhaps best known for the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that live there. In 1961 the Colorado Legislature designated the magnificent bighorn sheep as the official state animal, and they are usually only spotted above timberline in rugged mountain areas. So it’s pretty neat to encounter a herd of them when you round a bend on foot or on a bike. To protect the Waterton sheep, dogs are not allowed in the canyon. As a result, the sheep are generally oblivious to the humans in their midst. Signs warn visitors to stay at least 20 feet away. 

During the rut, mature rams, which can weigh up to 300 pounds (their horns alone can weigh up to 30 pounds), demonstrate two types of characteristic behavior. The first (as seen in the photo above right) is the “flehmen” response. That’s when they curl back of the upper lips to reveal front teeth, seeking out the pheromones of potentially receptive females. The other behavior is the dramatic head-butting, during which males crash into each other in order to establish dominance and the right to mate. 

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