Watching Bighorn Sheep in Nevada – From A Distance
Wildlife watching is fast becoming a popular, low-cost outdoor sport, and an increasing number of people want to know where they can go to have a good chance of seeing wild animals. In Southern Nevada, one the most popular animals for wildlife watchers is the desert bighorn sheep — Nevada’s state animal.
Though most animals tend to be very skittish, some herds of bighorn sheep are more tolerant of human activity than others. This makes bighorn sightings fairly common in Southern Nevada. However, there are still some things wildlife watchers need to keep in mind when seeking them out.
First and foremost, bighorn sheep, no matter where one finds them, are wild animals. As such, their behavior is unpredictable at best, and our behavior can put undue stress on the sheep. When we get too close to them, for example, sheep can exhibit defensive behavior or retreat. Sometimes, in an attempt to put distance between themselves and people, the sheep will actually move into an area where they are in more actual danger, said Pat Cummings, a wildlife biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
At Hemenway Park in Boulder City, for example, people can enjoy a close encounter of the sheep variety by simply having a seat beneath one of the gazebos. The sheep can frequently be seen feeding in the park and relaxing in the shade.
“If people will just sit quietly and hold still, the sheep will come as close as they feel comfortable, but when people try to get closer the animals exhibit avoidance behavior. The problem is the sheep may react by leaving the park and moving to the grassy areas along the highway (US 93) where they are sometimes hit by automobiles. This, of course, is an unacceptable situation for both the sheep and human beings alike,” Cummings said.
Another concern is the rut or breeding season. Due to Southern Nevada’s variable climate, bighorn ewes (females) can cycle and give birth year round. Rutting, or breeding behavior, can occur at almost any time but reaches its peak in August and September. During this time, the rams (males) vigorously pursue receptive ewes and can become aggressive when competing with each other for a ewe’s affections. Rams also can be aggressive toward people if cornered.
To avoid putting stress on the animals, wildlife watchers should always maintain their distance when observing bighorn sheep, or any big game animal for that matter, said Cummings. At Hemenway Park, “the gazebos are plenty close. There is no reason to approach any closer,” said Cummings. In other locations, wildlife watchers should keep an eye out for any behavior that might indicate the sheep are anxious. Walking away is one indicator, stomping of the feet is another.
People also might see bighorn sheep along the highway below Boulder City or near the Hoover Dam, but motorists should not stop because they may startle the sheep and cause them to jump into a travel lane.
Cummings said many people don’t realize what a unique opportunity we have in Southern Nevada to regularly view desert bighorn sheep. The chance of viewing these striking animals in more remote desert areas is far more improbable.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife (NDOW) protects, restores and manages fish and wildlife, promotes fishing, hunting, and boating safety. NDOW’s wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are primarily funded by sportsmen’s license and conservation fees and a federal surcharge on hunting and fishing gear. Support wildlife and habitat conservation in Nevada by purchasing a hunting, fishing, or combination license. For more information, visit www.ndow.org.