There are numerous Sheep Mountains across Wyoming. It is perhaps noteworthy only a small few of those mountains are still inhabited by populations of wild sheep.
Obviously this was not always the case. Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep once populated much of the foothills, badlands and steppes across Wyoming.
Historical accounts suggest this was true for the Big Horn Basin as well. Chief Holds-The-Enemy of the resident Crow Tribe recalled hunting sheep on the flanks of Heart Mountain in the 1870s.
In 1885 the early settler Ned Frost observed groups of wild sheep dwelling among the steep cliffs along the Stinking Water River, as well as all around Cedar Mountain.
In 1889 the famed conservationist and taxidermist William Hornaday came to the Big Horn Basin for the purpose of hunting specimens for his natural history collection. Some Native American scouts accompanying Hornaday shot an old ram in the badlands of the McCullough Peaks. Hornaday later secured his own mountain sheep trophy on the south slope of Rattlesnake Mountain. None of these localities have been known to harbor wild sheep herds for many years.
Given their historic prevalence, perhaps it is no surprise that mountain sheep tags were included on Wyoming’s first “ordinary” or general hunting licenses in 1899. Each general license provided the opportunity to shoot one sheep.
In retrospect this policy was far too liberal. By 1910 hunters were already commenting upon the absence of mature rams. Soon Wyoming’s game managers were recommending more restrictive sheep seasons, or closing them altogether.
For a stint in the 1920s Wyoming was the only state in the nation where mountain sheep could be legally taken on a hunting license. And from 1926 to 1928 Park County was the only place in Wyoming where sheep could be hunted at all, the season being closed throughout the rest of the state.
It was not until 1930 that sheep were finally removed from the general license and transferred to a limited quota tag to be released by game managers for specific areas determined to have excess rams.
Certainly the excessive harvest of sheep on early general licenses took its toll on Wyoming’s sheep population. But this concern was soon remedied through the enforcement of more rigid hunting laws and increasingly restrictive access to sheep tags
The gradual loss of winter range was also a factor. Areas where sheep had historically congregated were rapidly settled, turned to farmland or grazed by livestock.
But perhaps the greatest threat to Wyoming’s once widespread sheep population was disease. It turned out the many herds of domestic sheep grazing across the state were inadvertently passing pneumonia on to wild sheep, resulting in massive die-offs.
Scabies was also an issue, conveyed by mites from domestic sheep. In 1886 the long-time guide and buffalo hunter Vic Smith recounted seeing nearly 50 wild sheep on one hillside, all dead from scabies. At that time he predicted mountain sheep populations would not survive beyond a few decades.
Beginning in the 1930s the Cody Rod and Gun Club, along with many local outfitters, began advocating for the removal of grazing permits for domestic sheep from National Forest lands in order to protect wild sheep populations. The eventual widespread adoption of this policy has probably helped shield local wild sheep herds from further disease outbreaks. Unfortunately, their historic ubiquity across Wyoming will likely remain a remnant of the past.