Not far from Estes Park in Colorado, bighorn sheep graze in a meadow near two lakes, “Sheep Lakes,” in Rocky Mountain National Park. The herd makes its way to the lakes from the mountainside each morning and then returns to the mountainside in the late afternoon. It’s a beautiful commute. Park rangers and volunteers manage the tourists and the cars on the narrow highway to allow the sheep safe passage.
My husband and I were among the gawkers in early August for the sheep’s late afternoon procession back to the mountains. I joined the paparazzi jostling for a view from the packed parking lot. Because we had to stand well away from the sheep, I envied photographers with big lenses. One woman pointed to a female sheep hurrying back across the meadow to the herd at the closest lake. Where had the ewe been? What had she been up to? Her lamb ran out to her and then trailed after her. “Mommy, where did you go?”
In the mid-1800s, thousands of bighorn sheep lived in the Estes Valley, but their numbers were decimated by hunters, by degraded environment and by diseases introduced by domestic sheep. At one point it was thought only about 150 sheep lived in the park, high in the mountains. The bighorn sheep in the low-lying areas were gone. It wasn’t until recent decades that through conservation efforts and reintroduction of new bighorn sheep that the population started to increase. About 600 bighorn sheep live in the park now. The herd near Sheep Lakes seemed to be all female adults and their offspring. You can read more about the RMNP bighorn sheep in a link below.
I saw one sheep move up the hill from the lake, and a few stood behind her. Soon, most of the herd was behind her. She waited there, alert, watching us silly humans in the parking lot. Even though we were probably a hundred yards away (I’m bad at estimating distances), she was wary. The rangers and volunteers make sure humans stay back because sheep can be easily stressed. However, later, we saw bighorn sheep grazing by the side of the highway along Big Thompson River, butting heads and knocking each other into the road. They didn’t seem bothered by the traffic at all. I was worried for them!
Eventually, the entire herd at Sheep Lakes gathered behind the lead ewe and then the sheep made their way across the road, where traffic had been cleared. Of course, just as with humans, one grazing sheep was oblivious to the departing herd. She looked up, saw she was alone, and then bolted to catch the herd.
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About Bighorn Sheep in Rocky Mountain National Park.