If you’re entering Yellowstone National Park from the South Entrance, don’t miss the opportunity to explore Bighorn Sheep Country. A small corner of Wyoming’s northern Wind River mountain range has for decades been the factory that has fed Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep recovery efforts. Here, at a place called Whiskey Basin, bighorn sheep have thrived for decades, producing good numbers of lambs each year, a surplus that wildlife managers with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department have used to supplement wild populations around the West.
Located southeast of the town of Dubois, Whiskey Basin is the heart of sheep country. It is one of the best places in the world to observe wild sheep at all times of the year. In the summer, the bands of sheep will range high onto the shoulders of Whiskey Peak and Arrow Mountain as well as far back into the Fitzpatrick Wilderness. In the winter, starting around November, sheep often will come much lower, where they can be observed from the road into the basin. Here, mature bighorn rams will spar and fight, trying to prove their dominance to the ewes.
In Wyoming, bighorn sheep can be found in many of the major mountain ranges, but many of these populations exist thanks to the Whiskey Basin population. In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, wildlife managers transplanted surplus sheep from here to many of the ranges around the state.
Today, however, wildlife managers have some serious concerns about the Whiskey Basin bighorn sheep population. Although still strong in number, there are several factors that could be limiting the health of the herd. Disease certainly stands at the top; pneumonia and lungworm are two of the top causes of death among wild sheep populations, and the Whiskey Basin herd is certainly not immune.
In recent years, the number of lambs being born and surviving-known as recruitment-has drastically slowed. Some biologists theorize that this is due to mineral or vitamin deficiencies, while others worry that more dominant ungulates such as elk are providing too much competition. The area has a thriving elk population and wildlife managers are working hard with liberal elk hunting seasons to keep those numbers in check. Still others fret about predation from coyotes and other predators.
For many decades, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has undertaken habitat improvement projects in the basin, ranging from seeding efforts to controlled burns. The suppression of wildfire is a major limiting factor in bighorn sheep recovery efforts. Because of the bad rap that wildfire gets, the forests have grown too thick for bighorn sheep. Bighorns, like antelope, like open country because one of their best defense mechanisms is their sight. When wildfire is suppressed, the growth of forests results in large chunks of forest that chokes out historic sheep range. With the proper use of controlled burns, wildlife managers are opening up these ranges once again. Other habitat improvements include installing water catchments for thirsty sheep, and fertilizing some parts of the high country.
There are several studies underway to try to explain why the Whiskey Basin sheep herd appears to be less productive than in the past. These studies will help wildlife managers determine if future action is needed at all.
In the 1990s, the National Bighorn Sheep Center was established in Dubois. The center, which has interpretative programs and offers educational messages to people wanting to learn more about bighorn sheep, is open to the public. Inside, visitors can observe life-sized mounts of bighorns, and watch natural history movies explaining the life of the bighorn sheep. It is well worth the visit, as is the short drive up the dirt road to Whiskey Basin.
You can approach Dubois on your way to Yellowstone National Park, driving north along the “Old Yellowstone Highway” from Sidney, Nebraska, through Casper, Wyoming. After reaching Dubois, it’s a short way through the Grand Teton National Park into Yellowstone country.