A reliable place to see wintering Bighorns—close to town on the National Elk Refuge.
Each November, a herd of around 70 Bighorn Sheep move to Miller Butte on the National Elk Refuge. Exactly when they move in seems to be related to the area snow pack and severity of the early Winter. In 2013 and 2014, the first Bighorns appeared around the middle of the month. In light snowfall years, the first few show up around Thanksgiving.
Besides simply finding a home to spend the Winter, the Bighorns use the area for their seasonal rut. Tourists and photographers are allowed to watch from the refuge road.
We moved to Wyoming in 1986 after growing up in the flat prairie of Oklahoma. I always assumed you’d have to hike miles into the back country wilderness to find either Bighorns or Mountain Goats. I was surprised to find out they come to the roads at certain times of the year. In the photo above, my truck was parked at one of the pull outs on the Elk Refuge Road. The sides of my truck were treated with a “Wyoming Car Wash”. They are attracted to the residual salt and chemicals from the road crews.
Prior to the actual mating, rams gather to determine dominance or a pecking order by bashing their heads together. The distinctive sound echoes across the valley floor.
Capturing the head bashing isn’t exactly easy, but if they go at it long enough, you can usually get a few.
While the largest rams do most of the actual mating, young rams chase ewes across the sage and rocks.
The largest ram in the immediate area spends part of his time running other smaller rams away from his ewe.
Once in a while a ram gets a prime ewe to run, causing rams from all around to follow in the chase. The most dominant ram is usually immediately behind the ewe, but he will occasionally turn to bash the next closest ram. Doing so lets the rest of the herd get close to the ewe and some of the smaller rams get their chance to mate until the bigger ram catches up again.
This ewe attracted a large crowd of interested rams.
At times, you have to feel sorry for the ewe. A herd of 10 or more rams can chase her to the point of exhaustion for an hour or longer.
Both ewes and rams are adept at high speed chases across rocky terrain.
“The Show” is free! Best deal in town if you catch it on a good day.
When love is in the air, a Bighorn can climb almost vertical rock walls.
Down a shear rock wall is no problem either.
The ewe covers large areas of the refuge trying to get away from the relentless rams.
Occasionally, a ewe finds a spot that seems to perplex the rams. This one found a small ledge and stood on it for an hour or longer as rams tried to knock her off.
Action is usually limited to ten or fifteen minutes at a time, followed by longer periods of resting.
Winter storms can pound the region. Stiff winds and sheets of snow can make photography challenging, but still worth it if you are dressed and ready for the cold and wind.
Bighorns often feed near the road, allowing for some wonderful opportunities for close-up images. I’ve never seen one charge a person and the Refuge rangers don’t seem to worry about people being close. Of course, I have telephoto lenses, so even though I can capture images like this one, I am still a reasonable distance. I always worry about a point and shoot photographer pushing the limits that could result in rigid and restrictive viewing distances.
Bighorns, like Moose, Mountain Goats, and wild Mustangs will often display a Flehmen Response following smelling the urine of a ewe. Glands in their upper lips help them determine if a female is ready for mating. Some people also call this a “lip curl”. A couple of the rams at Miller Butte are “respectable” in size, but I haven’t seen any really large ones in a long time. Maybe we’ll get one or two this year. Biologists can usually age a ram by distinctive divisions in his horns. As with most “horned” mammals, they keep them all of their life. Antlered animals, like Moose, Deer, and Elk shed their antlers yearly and begin grown new ones. Many of the largest Rams will “broom” the tips of their horns once they grow to a full curl.
Actual mating can be observed regularly during the rut.
Rut activity can begin after Thanksgiving and can continue into early January.
Ewes with lambs of the year watch as other ewes are chased during the rut.
Lambs usually stay somewhere near their mother, but still have plenty of freedom to explore and practice their climbing skills.
Lambs seem to be gifted at birth.
By mid-Winter, most lambs forage for themselves. I seldom see them nursing.
Rams move from ewe to ewe and approach each one in this classic position.
Bighorns are reported to have incredible eyesight. They are aware of all movement.
After a heavy snow, Bighorns are forced to dig through the deep, white powder to get to clumps of grass. Sometimes it sticks to their face and horns.
Bighorns remain on the National Elk Refuge into March. By that time, their winter coats are bleached out and beginning to thin. The snow on the south facing rock faces is usually melted. By March, I have usually taken plenty of photos and am out looking for new subjects.
Photographing Bighorn Head Bashes
I am sure everyone has their own way of photographing the bashing rams, but I’ll attempt to explain how I’ve been doing it for the past few years. First, let me explain the problem. At the point of impact, the heads of the two rams are typically somewhere near dead center in the frame. That’s the plan anyway. However, if you set your focus point in the center and let the rams move to it, the camera will be attempting to focus between the two rams and usually somewhere in the distant sagebrush.
Normally, when two rams are facing off, one of them will rear up onto it’s hind legs. Actually, both of them rear up at about the same following some signal only they seem to recognize. I try to focus on a spot just above center of the frame. Depending on the specific circumstanced, it could be on the neck or head of one of the two rams, as seen in red circle in the image above. This image was shot at ISO 320, F/8, and a shutter speed of 1/2000th second. Luckily, between the late November days and snow, I can get shutters speeds in this range. To keep the shutter speed up, I don’t have a problem pushing the ISO up to 800 or even 1250 if the action calls for it on. I also like to use a camera with a fast frame rate, like my Nikon D4. The last sequence in this post will illustrate why!
This is the same ram a split second later. I panned to the right, keeping the focus point on his shoulder or head. The second ram moves into my frame.
Impact! The second ram will usually meet the head of my subject at approximately where I placed my focus point in the scene originally. (scroll back up to see the location of the red circle)
I miss some of course, but I manage to capture a lot of them. It takes a little practice, and a lot of patience!
It’s hard to beat Bighorns bashing in the snow!
You never know when something like this will happen. It took them a while to unhook their horns.
One of the most difficult aspects of capturing bashing rams is getting a clean shot of the event without distracting additional rams.
A Full Sequence
While this might seem a little redundant, I am including a sequence with this ram from beginning to its unique climax.
While I included seven images in this sequence, I actually captured 14 images. That’s the beauty of the D4. It can capture up to around 90 raw images at 10 FPS before beginning to hit a memory buffer. If my buffer had filled after 11 or 12 images, I would have missed the last few important frames. With 14 captures, I had plenty of frames in between and was able to capture the most import shots.
Click this image to see it much larger
If you head out to the National Elk Refuge, you might want to know a few ground rules. First, the area is a “refuge” and not a “park”. The animals get first priority—not tourists! Currently, pull-outs are very limited along the Refuge Road (shown in red above). If you plan on stopping to photograph the wildlife, you MUST use one of the pullouts. I don’t know if they will be passing out tickets, but refuge rangers regularly pull over with lights flashing and run illegally parked vehicles on down the road. There is a 65′ county easement for the road running through the Refuge. The Refuge Rangers prefer that people stand off the actual county road when possible, but only a few yards off the road bed. Posts with signs mark the boundaries fairly well. Hikers and joggers use the road, along with refuge trucks, FedEx trucks, UPS trucks and snow plows. It can feel quite congested and even a little dangerous at times with impatient drivers and slick, snow covered roads. I added Big Rock, Amphitheater, and Saddle to the map. Those are my terms for a few of the spots…not official. A few of us use the same terms. If someone says the herd was coming off the “saddle”, we know about where they are talking about. Miller Butte on Photographer’s Ephemeris.
This page might help with more specific rules and regulations: Refuge winter travel restrictions announced – National Elk Refuge – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Other Bighorn Opportunities
Miller Butte is a very short drive from my home in Jackson. I can go there a couple of times a day. There are a few other places to capture images of Bighorns in the area. Occasionally, a few Bighorns hang around the red rock cliffs at the Slide Lake campground. A herd can also be found around Red Rock Ranch farther up the Gros Ventre, however that road is locked after December 1st. Another herd can sometimes be found near Camp Creek Inn, a few miles “up the Hoback” from Hoback Junction. I’ve seen bighorns farther up the canyon, near “stinking springs” pullout. Regionally, there are several herds in the Dubois area and quite a few on the North Fork of the Shoshone River outside Cody. That’s a long drive from here in the winter. Likewise, several herds of Bighorns winter around Gardiner on the north side of Yellowstone.
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