“Bighorn sheep are undoubtedly one of the most iconic and revered wildlife species in Montana, yet in comparison to most big game animals, relatively little is known about their population,” stated a 2013 Fish, Wildlife & Parks report. There are roughly 6,000 bighorns in Montana with approximately 700 living in Region 2 of the Fish, Wildlife & Parks map which includes herds up Petty Creek near Alberton and near St. Regis. Over the years, the numbers grew to 1,500 with the 1970s herd producing trophy-size rams.
Unfortunately, they can get pneumonia after having contact with domestic sheep, causing the population to drop after a devastating die-off from 2008 to 2011. During this period, Montana lost 20 percent of its bighorn population. In 2016, the Petty Creek herd was included among 14 sheep populations across Montana as part of a statewide research effort on population performance and health.
This past fall, Fish, Wildlife & Parks staff members were studying herds in the Region 2 area. During an outing in October, members were able to witness first-hand the power and strength of these elusive big game animals. The crew made a trip up Rock Creek located east of Missoula and were witness to a “once-in-a-lifetime memory” of rams fighting. In the November 2018, Region 2 “Wildlife Quarterly” report, a pictorial showed the story of two rams during the rut, fighting for an astonishing 50 minutes, knocking heads 17 times.
“That’s a startling pace of 2.94 minutes per hit — hits hard enough to drop the older ram to its knees on one occasion,” the report stated. That’s an amazing amount of force since rams’ shock-absorbing skulls can withstand 800 pounds of force.
No sooner had the department published this “Special Edition” of their quarterly report, when they witnessed another jaw-dropping display of the bighorn’s prowess in a similar encounter up Petty Creek, prompting another special edition of the Wildlife Quarterly, “The Petty Creek Edition.”
“We commemorated it (Rock Creek) in a special edition of the Region 2 Wildlife Quarterly barely a week ago, thinking that the rut couldn’t possibly top itself. Then we made the ‘mistake’ of visiting Petty Creek on Nov. 11, and the exciting displays of bighorn rams that we observed could not be ignored.”
Originally, 16 sheep were reintroduced into the Petty Creek area in 1968 from Sun River near Great Falls. Now the herd sports approximately 150 animals. On the November trip, the group of biologists counted 15 sheep above Madison Gulch, including five rams, three of which engaged in battle with estimated ages of 5 to about 6 years old. Their age was determined by the size of their horns.
In proportion to body size, North American sheep carry the largest horns among ruminants, a class of animal which includes cattle, sheep and even giraffes, with sizes recorded to exceed 51 inches in length and 16 inches in circumference at the base. The old males may bear 8 to 12 percent of their body weight just in horns, which can weigh up to 30 pounds. Studies indicate that rams interact with each other based on horn size. This seemed to be the case up Petty Creek as the older rams engaged with each other, while the younger rams stepped back and watched.
Until dusk, the crew witnessed the rams in battle with the 5-year-old charging and butting heads with the other two. Rams can withstand the continual stress of head butting because their skull are made of several bones which do not entirely fuse together. As a result, scientists believe the force is distributed along the sutures, which are flexible. It’s estimated that the force of these head butts are 60 times greater than what is needed to crack a human adult skull.
But the question that remains among these high-mountain, high-stake battles is, who won? The winner, according to the report, is the one who sires the most and best-surviving offspring and generally, those are the rams with the largest horns. A full pictorial of the rams can be found online by visiting http://fwp.mt.gov/regions/r2/wildlifeQ.