Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep Location: Wyoming

Photo of two bighorn sheep rams by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

Two Rams Posing

Nikon D300s| f/11 @ 1/640 sec. | ISO400

Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep live and thrive in the highest and most rugged mountain ranges in the western United States. Bighorns graze on high alpine meadows and avoid predators and humans by scaling precipitous cliffs. The first snows of winter bury their food supplies, so by October, bighorn sheep leave their summer meadows high in the Absaroka Mountains east of Yellowstone National Park to find snow-free grazing in the river valleys on the eastern side of the mountains.

When the first snows of winter start to fall on the Absaroka Mountains, herds of bighorn sheep come down into the Wapiti Valley to graze along the North Fork of the Shoshone River. It is located just a few miles west of Cody. It sits in the snow-shadow of the Absaroka Range and receives less snow than the Tetons and Yellowstone. Cody, Wyoming, is one of the best places in North America for wildlife photographers to find herds of wintering bighorns. You can easily fill several days taking slow drives along the North Fork Road, looking for and photographing bighorns. And with November being the mating season for these sheep, it is the best time to visit.

WInter landscape photo of Wapiti Valley in Wyoming by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

Wapiti Valley

Nikon D300s| f/10 @ 1/400 sec. | ISO400

You’ll spot sheep licking salt crystals on the pavement—salt used to dissolve ice on the roads. Drive slowly and watch out for young ones in the middle of the road.

Be patient—they will come. Pull off the road and shoot landscapes while waiting for bighorns to appear. This is beautiful, majestic country, so take advantage of every photographic opportunity there is.

Small herds (15-20 sheep) can be seen grazing in fields along the road. They seem to be used to seeing cars pass by, but to avoid frightening them off, stop on the opposite side of the road and shoot through an open car window.

Photo of bighorn sheep family by Robert Hitchman
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All Rights Reserved.

Bighorn Family

Nikon D300s| f/11 @ 1/640 sec. | ISO400

Photo of South Fork bighorn sheep ram by Robert Hitchman 
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All rights reserved.

South Fork Ram

Nikon D300s| f/11 @ 1/320 sec. | ISO400

I attach a 24-120 mm zoom lens to my Nikon D40 digital SLR and hang the neck strap around the passenger-side headrest. If it sits on the passenger seat without restraint, it will go flying if I have to brake quickly for critters.

When shooting the bighorns, the subjects kept changing from wildlife to landscapes, to panoramas and back again. I would be constantly changing lenses if I didn’t carry two camera bodies, so I keep my tripod with legs extended, with the Nikon D300s and 70-300 mm lens attached, on the back seat.

The power switches and the VR switches are always on, so I keep fully charged spare batteries warm inside my parka pocket.

I try to avoid excessive switching of lenses on my digital SLRs because of dust problems on the sensors. When the lenses are moved to a different body, I leave it there until it must be changed for a good reason.

Winter landscape hoto of South Fork road in Wyoming by Robert Hitchman 
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All rights reserved.

South Fork Road

Nikon D300s| f/11 – 1/400 sec. | ISO640

You will see individual bighorns walking along the edge of the road. The North Fork Highway has narrow places where canyon walls rise directly from the side of the road, so watch for rocks that have fallen on the pavement. These are often dislodged by bighorn on the slopes above. Do take some time to pull off the road when you can and look up with binoculars or a telephoto lens. You will marvel at the agility of mature rams (weighing up to 200 lbs.) climbing almost straight up, while leaping from one tiny foothold to another.

A good, tight headshot of a mature ram, with a full curl of horns and a sharp catch-light in the eye, is what every photographer wants. When you are shooting a herd, wait for most or all of the sheep in your composition to turn their heads and look at you at the same time. Avoid tail shots and don’t shoot while they are grazing with their heads down in the grass.

Close-up photo of mature Rocky Mountain Bighorn ram in Wyoming by Robert Hitchman 
© 2011 Robert Hitchman. All rights reserved.

Mature Ram

Nikon D300s| f/11 @ 1/320 sec. | ISO400

If you love nature and wildlife, I would highly recommend a November visit to Wyoming.

by Robert Hitchman, Photograph America

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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