Beautiful Bighorns: Finding North Dakota’s Best-Kept Secret of the Badlands

I love being outdoors, but I don’t normally cover wildlife on Prairie Style File. That’s not because I’m not interested, but because I’m usually not in the right place at the right time.

But my friend Jack Dura, who chronicles his adventures on acrossnorthdakota.com, often is. He’s been maximizing his time in western North Dakota and even managed to get some great shots of the state’s elusive bighorn sheep near his new home in Watford City.

Today he takes us inside the herd. It’s interesting stuff, even if wildlife photography isn’t usually your thing. Here’s Jack!

– Alicia

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Rams, ewes and lambs group together on the sage flat along the scoria road to the CCC Campground. Photo by Jack Dura.

On a chilly, overcast evening, 23 bighorn sheep milled about on a scoria road south of Watford City.

A dusty blue Chevy pickup rolled down the road, sending the bighorns scampering off to the south side of the trail where they grouped around on a sage flat under a badlands knob.

These rams, ewes and lambs represent a significant portion and locally famous fraction of North Dakota’s 330 bighorn sheep. The species was extirpated in the state in 1905, but was introduced again with bighorns from Canada in the 1950s.

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A young ram and a radio collared ewe stand next to each other as their herd grazes on a sage flat.

A bacterial pneumonia pathogen swept through North Dakota’s bighorns in 2014, killing 15 percent of the population while moving north along the Little Missouri River. The die-off was so bad that North Dakota Game and Fish canceled the 2015 bighorn season. However, the state opened its 2016 season with eight tags in three units in western North Dakota after a record number of rams in a summer survey.

The two dozen bighorns living south of Watford City are well known in the area, living near the heavily traveled Long X Bridge. Anyone curious to glimpse these fascinating animals can try a drive down the scoria road to the CCC Campground on the Little Missouri National Grassland, where the bighorns have been seen grazing on hillsides, milling on the road or in an adjacent hay field.

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The herd of two dozen bighorn sheep mill around in a hayfield south of the Little Missouri River near the Long X Bridge. Photo by Jack Dura.

Now in late fall, the rutting season is getting on, evidenced by several rams charging and chasing ewes. Two mature rams occasionally butt heads while the older of the two skulks among the herd, stalking a small ewe with an eye infirmity and a radio collar around her neck.

At least three of the herd have radio collars, tracking their movements for NDGF. The collars also helped biologists locate dead sheep during the pneumonia event.

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The larger of the herd’s rams paces among the ewes and lambs along the campground road.

While cruising the campground road for bighorns, it isn’t unusual to see other drivers pull off for the road too. When the bighorns grazed in a hay field at a recent sunset, four trucks parked on the sides of the skinny red road to watch the bighorns with binoculars and detached rifle scopes.

They are a playful bunch. Two of the ewes hopped atop a hay bale while the older ram prowled below. Other ewes and lambs jumped a barbwire fence as two other rams pursued them. One of the ewes pushed the other off the hay bale, but she landed on all fours.

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The herd chills on a sage flat under a badlands knob near the CCC Campground. Photo by Jack Dura.

The herd stayed together that day. Two days earlier, they were split into three groups grazing along the south side of the CCC Campground road—nine lambs and ewes, two pairs of rams and ewes and a group of 10 at the road’s end. They grazed peacefully as gawking travelers parked to watch them.

North Dakota’s bighorn sheep are one of the state’s several big game animals, including mule and white-tailed deer, moose, elk and pronghorn. Preferring the roughest badlands and cooler temperatures, now is the time to try to peek at the herd south of Watford City.

And when you find them, just sit and watch.

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A mature ram looks to the side as his herd grazes near the CCC Campground south of Watford City. Photo by Jack Dura.

What do you think of North Dakota’s bighorn sheep?
Where do you go to see animals in the wild?
What’s your favorite animal to observe?
What else should I see the next time I’m western North Dakota?

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