World-Class Ram Dies of Natural Causes

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A world-class bighorn sheep ram that lived along the Arkansas River was found dead in late November. Over the past few years, the ram was spotted in a small herd of sheep that lived on private property west of Pueblo Reservoir.

Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW) biologists estimate the ram was between 12 and 13 years old and was driven from the herd by younger males. At that point, he traveled north onto property owned by Fort Carson where it died of old age. A necropsy indicated heart and lung problems along with arthritis and a chest infection.

"This old guy is one for the record books," said Allen Vitt, a terrestrial biologist from Pueblo. "Based on the initial measurements, the ram will score among the largest in the world."

The current Boone & Crocket world record ram is 208 and three-eighths. Scoring is done by taking a series of standardized measurements. Boone & Crocket requires that horns dry for at least 60 days before measuring, so a final score will not be calculated until February.

One thing that might prevent this sheep from becoming a new world record is that fact that one of its horns was broken off at the tip. Brooming is the name for the chipping and fraying of the horns. It is usually caused by fighting.

Regardless of the final score, the ram was one of the most majestic bighorn sheep recorded in Colorado.

One of the reasons this ram's horns grew to such massive proportions is because he lived a long time in relative seclusion. There is no public access to the portion of the Arkansas River where it lived. The rocky cliffs adjacent to the river provided ample protection from predators and there was good access to forage and water.

Fort Carson military and wildlife officials discovered the ram on the southern end of their property in late August and kept a close eye on it to ensure its safety. The ram was showing signs of old age including decreased muscle mass, fatigue, and had become seemingly unafraid of humans. "We were very fortunate that personnel at Fort Carson found the ram," said Shaun Deeney, an area wildlife manager from Colorado Springs. Due to their vigilance, we will be able to preserve this majestic animal for future generations. The DOW plans to have the ram mounted to use in an educational display.

"Our records indicate that bighorn sheep were first documented along the Arkansas River between Pueblo and Canon City in the early 1990's, said Bob Davies, a senior biologist with the DOW. "We believe the sheep migrated into the rugged cliffs along the river after transplant operations along Hardscrabble Creek in 1988."

Bighorn sheep are the official state mammal in Colorado. They are an extremely popular animal both for hunting and for wildlife viewing. Many areas of the state have developed wildlife viewing areas specifically for bighorns including Georgetown west of Denver and along the Arkansas River west of Canon City.

At the time of the arrival of European settlers, bighorn sheep were very common throughout Colorado and the Rocky Mountain West. By the end of the 19th century, however, populations of bighorn sheep declined.

Although the exact cause of the decline is not fully understood, wildlife biologists believe that parasites and diseases, such as lungworm and pneumonia, may have been key factors. Other reasons included market-hunting to feed a growing population in the gold mining camps.

Over the past 50 years, the Colorado DOW has taken a proactive role in sheep management and today there are approximately 8,000 sheep roaming the mountainsides and canyon lands in the state. "Intensive management efforts began in the 1970's and bighorn sheep populations have been on the rise ever since," said Davies.

In 1962, there were at least 52 known herds of bighorn sheep in Colorado ranging from the Continental Divide to Mesa Verde National Park. Today the number of herds in Colorado has more than doubled.