National Geographic : 1974 Sep
Heads crack as bighorns duel in the Rockies Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep use their massive horns as percussion instruments. During the fall rutting season, when hormone changes bring on the breeding urge, 250-pound rams square off in violent head-butting matches to determine which gains leadership of the herd and pick of the ewes. Duelists rear on hind legs, then drop to all fours and, heads down, charge at full speed. Crack! Horn crashes against horn, and the sound carries as much as a mile. Shock ripples the combatants' bodies. They bounce back, stand still, dazed by the impact, and again hurl themselves at each other. Chips and splinters fly from Headstrong rams have porous double-layered skulls that serve as shock absorbers and prevent serious injury. Most damage is to noses-hence the familiar "roman" look-and to horns. Few ever reach full curl. Those that do present inviting targets to hunters shooting for a prize trophy. Gunners legally take some 300 bighorn rams each year in the United States, but many more than that are killed. Poachers goaded by fat fees-$3,000 or more for a head-are even invading one of the animals' last strongholds, the national parks. horns; blood oozes from noses. Suddenly the battering stops, and the rams resume grazing. Though seeming to ignore each other, they are in fact maneuvering for another skirmish: The ram that gains position uphill for a downward thrust clearly has the advantage. Sometimes a younger ram eager to test his strength enters the fray with a hit-and-run attack. Sneaking in from the rear or side, he-is capable of delivering a rib-fracturing blow. Another serious threat to bighorns is a steadily shrinking habitat. Once they ranged lush grasslands from British Columbia to New Mexico. By the early 1900's overgrazing by livestock had nearly denuded the land, with hardy sagebrush replacing the succulent grasses bighorns need in order to thrive. Result: Large herds were reduced to scattered remnant bands. They survive today in only a few pockets of wilderness. It is vital that the world be alerted to the bighorn's plight, for action now could forestall disaster. Ecology minded readers are aware that the fate of wildlife is intertwined with theirs. That's one reason why they turn each month to the pages of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.