El animale de Taos: Bighorn sheep

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Ovis canadensis, the ram, the symbol of the astrological sign Aries; bighorn sheep were known to roam the Upper Río Grande area long ago. A petroglyph of a ram was once carved into the rock of the Río Grande Gorge. There was a time, however, when these impressive creatures were eradicated from the North American landscape.

Taos News reporter Cody Hooks wrote in 2016, “According to Eric Rominger, bighorn sheep biologist for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, bighorns were extirpated in New Mexico around the turn of the 20th century [due to diseases introduced through European livestock and overhunting]. The last known evidence of a bighorn in New Mexico was a track found in the Truchas Peaks south of Taos.

“The reintroduction of the bighorn sheep started in the 1940s when a group of sheep were gathered from Alberta and brought to the Sandia Mountains. A herd was started in the Pecos Mountains with a mix of fresh blood from Alberta along with a few Sandia sheep — the founding stock for many of the rest of New Mexico’s herds.

“When Rominger came to the department in 1996, bighorns were officially endangered. Only 166 desert bighorns and fewer than 600 Rocky Mountain sheep were present in New Mexico. Now, he said, there are 15 herds spread across the Land of Enchantment.” Much of that success is due to the conservation efforts of Taos Pueblo. A large chunk of the area that bighorns make their home is Pueblo land.

This mammal is an herbivore. They live in large herds. Males typically weigh 128 to 315 pounds, grow to 35- to 41-inches tall at the shoulder, and 5- to 6-feet long from the nose to the tail. On average, ewes (females) weight 75-201 pounds, and are 30- to 35-inches tall and 4-to 5-feet long. The males’ distinctive, curling horns can weigh up to 30 pounds. Females also have horns, but they are shorter with less curvature. In the wild, the bighorn’s life span is 6 to 15 years.

It’s no guarantee you’ll spot one, but Rocky Mountain bighorns are known to frequent the precipitous, snaggy walls of the gorge and roam along La Vista Verde Trail in the Orilla Verde Recreation Area in Pilar (just south of Taos off U.S. Highway 64), the Wheeler Peak area in Taos Ski Valley and Latir Peak Wilderness. The latter two areas are located within Carson National Forest.

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