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The Battling Bighorns

by Miles Hecker

 Most Americans, and many other students of American history have heard of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, also known as Custer's Last Stand. This battle, which was fought on June 25 and 26, 1876, close to the Little Bighorn River in what is now eastern Montana, was the most famous battle of the Great Sioux War of 1876. The Indian tribes led by Crazy Horse and and Chief Gall, severely defeated the U.S. Seventh Cavalry, including the Custer Battalion, a force of 700 men led by George Armstrong Custer. Custer was killed and total Seventh Cavalry deaths were 268, including scouts, and 55 were wounded. Native American casualties were estimated at 36 dead from Native American listings of the dead by name.

Every December, In a spot about 150 miles to the southwest of the Little Bighorn battle site, there is another battle which takes place. It has occurred each winter for a thousand years before Custers demise and will in all likelihood occur for many thousands of years to come. It is for the most part bloodless. It involves neither US armed forces, native American tribes, or humans of any kind.

This battle, while not about territory or land ownership is about survival. It as Darwin may have observed is about the survival of the fittest. The fittest as proven by ritual combat are allowed to pass their genes on to the next generation of the species. The site of this epic war is on the North Fork of the Shosone River, about 50 miles west of the Wyoming town of Cody.


View North Fork Shoshone Bighorns in a larger map

Death Canyon Shelf Sunset

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Bighorn sheep or Ovis canadensis is one of two species of mountain sheep in North America. The other species being Ovis dalli, which includes Dall Sheep and Stone's Sheep. In North America, these wild sheep have diverged into two separate and distinct geographic areas. The Dall Sheep occupy Alaska and northwestern Canada, and the bighorn sheep range from southern Canada to New Mexico.

The Rocky Mountains of Wyoming have a large and mostly robust population of bighorn sheep. The problem for wildlife lovers and photographers is that they spend most of there lives's away from easily accessible roads.

Fortunately for wildlife watchers things change in mating season. In the mountains of Wyoming, late fall is mating season for bighorn sheep. During this period they return to ancient battle grounds and the males battle for the opportunity to mate with the ewes. By an accident of fate, one of these ancient combat areas is situated in a series of grassy meadows along the North Fork of the Shoshone River and US highway 20.

The North Fork of the Shoshone River cuts a deep canyon through
the rugged Absaroka Mountains as it descends from the eastern boundary of Yellowstone National Park to the Wyoming prairie that lies to the east of the park.

In the second and third week of December, the open meadows that are situated to the south of the river turn into a bighorn sheep field of honor. Rival rams in rut fight for dominance and the right to breed as the ewes look on. During rut bighorn sheep often form lines like you see in the picture above.The oldest and biggest sheep tries to dominate the younger ones with posturing and kicking to show that he is indeed the boss. These battles often occur right next to the paved road. At the height of rut, head butting commences. You can often hear the crack of horns echo down the canyon.

Amazingly enough, during this process, both the rams and the ewes seem almost immune to the presence of humans. While it can help to have big lenses to photograph this spectacle, the top two photos in this article were shot at a focal length of only 300mm! The portrait you see below was shot at a focal length of 700mm.


Sunset Lake

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Wildflowers

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Two hundred years ago, bighorn sheep were widespread throughout the western United States, Canada, and northern Mexico. There population was estimated to be as high as 2 million individuals. Sadly, by the start of the 20th century hunting and diseases introduced by domestic sheep had decreased the population to only several thousand.

Conservation programs, reintroductions, natural parks and reduced hunting have enabled to sheep numbers to bounce back. Today, there are an estimated 70,000 bighorn sheep living in the intermountain region between Canada, the US and Mexico.

Bighorn sheep were amongst the most admired animals of the Crow Indian people. They Bighorn Mountain Range in central Wyoming derives it's name from the presence of these animals. Perhaps some December, you can make your journey to the the canyon along the North Fork of the Shoshone River. You can work for that great photo or just sit and watch. Either way, you will leave with a respect for the spectacle you have witnessed.

Photoguide

 

 

About Miles Hecker

Miles has been involved with photography for over forty years. He teaches digital photography at Casper College in Casper,Wyoming. His photos have won awards from Natures Best magazine, Photo.net, The Luminous Landscape and Wyoming WIldlife . Miles' photos have been published in American Vignette, Backpacker Magazine, Natures Best Images, Popular Photography, Wyoming Audubon, and Wyoming Wildlife. He is co-founder of WyoFOTO LLC.

 

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Geotagged Photolocation Index

January 2012
 

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Concepts: Ovis, Battle of the Little Bighorn, Mouflon, Native Americans in the United States, George Armstrong Custer, North America, Bighorn Sheep, Black Hills

Entities: Cody, WyoFOTO LLC, North America, U.S., Canada, Mexico, Casper College, Americans, Little Bighorn River, Shoshone River, Absaroka Mountains, Shosone River, Yellowstone National Park, Custer Battalion, rams, Miles Hecker, Chief Gall, George Armstrong, Backpacker Magazine, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Alaska

Tags: bighorn sheep, Little Bighorn, Wyoming, North Fork, Dall Sheep, rut bighorn sheep, bighorn sheep field, bighorn sheep range, Little Bighorn River, Little Bighorn battle, Seventh Cavalry, focal length, sheep occupy alaska, Shoshone River, North America, Custer, total seventh cavalry, George Armstrong Custer, mountain sheep, wild sheep, biggest sheep, ancient battle grounds, Native American casualties, domestic sheep, native american tribes, Great Sioux War, rugged absaroka mountains, distinct geographic areas, Native American listings, wildlife, Natures Best magazine, Natures Best Images, US highway 20, Yellowstone National Park, western united states, ancient combat areas, 20th century hunting, Canada, photos, Crow Indian people