Working five years as a ski instructor at Winter Park, I’ve got the drive from Nederland down pat. Full confession. Sometime I zone out while driving and miss out on the beautiful scenery or wildlife along the way. But this morning, as I took the Empire exit off I-70, out of the corner of my eye, I saw something move. I slowed down momentarily, glancing over at the rocky terrain to my right.
A tawny colored head with curled horns dipped down as he munched on some scrubby vegetation — Bighorn Sheep!
Though most visitors to Colorado think summer is prime time for wildlife viewing, I don’t think that’s always true. I should know, as during my time as a Park Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, I spent quality time at Sheep Lakes.
“Lakes’ is a generous term. The lakes were more like shallow, seasonal ponds. But occasionally, bighorn sheep would make their way down the hillside and go to the lakes. Not for a swim, or for drinking, but to eat. The muddy lakes contained plant material the sheep love to nibble on.
During week after week at Sheep Lakes, there would be nary a sheep. I think the most days I ever saw sheep during two months of working there was two.
But during winter, when sheep are the last thing on my mind? There they are – everywhere in Colorado. That particular day, they were hanging out on the rocky slopes outside of Empire. With split hooves that are made to cling to rock ledge, they are at home on the steep inclines.
But I’ve frequently seen them right along Interstate 70 — the main route intersecting Colorado.
While traveling to western Colorado, the buff-colored sheep were foraging on the other side of the guardrail. Strangely, the cars buzzing by at 65 miles per hour didn’t even seem to faze them. And I suspect that many a driver blew by them without realizing they just passed Colorado’s state mammal. They are easy to miss, because their soft brown color blends with their habitat, camouflaging them from their predators.
However, one morning while driving to Loveland ski area several years ago, the sheep could not be missed. Being a Wednesday, I expected little traffic. But just outside of Georgetown, traffic came to a halt. Was there an accident?
No, it was a herd of a sheep. Several ewes with their dainty horns jutting out of their head, stood together with their lambs. Looking bewildered, they didn’t seem to know where they were. One thing that doesn’t work when encountered by a “sheep jam”? Trying to make them move, before they are ready.
Bighorn sheep can be seen all throughout the state, from canyon country in Grand Junction to the high country. Unlike their other hoofed brethren, sheep keep their horns their whole life. In fact, you can guess the age of males from how much curl their horn has.
Next time you’re driving I-70 on a winter’s day, take a closer look to the hillsides — you might be surprised by what you see.