Ewe Got Big Horns

We continued our drive along the southern edge of the Badlands Wall into an area known as the Pinnacles where we passed a lone coyote, the official state animal of South Dakota (since 1949):

Just beyond the Pinnacles, the road heads due north across the Buffalo Gap National Grasslands where we immediately came upon a small herd of Bighorn sheep ewes, that is, females.

Bighorn sheep are thought to be indigenous to the Badlands, having migrated millennia ago from the Rocky Mountains down the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, then up their tributaries. Lewis and Clark encountered Bighorn sheep when they passed through the Northern Plains in 1804-1806, describing them in their journals as being “about the size of a large Deer, or a small Elk….” But the sheep all but disappeared in the late 1800s as western settlers hunted them for food and cattlemen moved in with their herds that consumed the range grass and carried diseases the sheep had no immunity from. By the 1890s, Bighorn sheep were no longer found in the Dakotas.

An attempt was made to reintroduce Rocky Mountain Bighorn sheep in South Dakota in the 1920s, but they again disappeared by the 1950s. In 1964, another attempt was made when 22 Bighorn were translocated to Badlands NP from Colorado. The Park’s herd, supplemented in 2004, now consists of about 250 sheep, a small fraction of the 80,000 in the United States today. The Bighorn has no predators inside the Park, although outside the Park limited hunting is allowed (8 permits issued for 2020).

Bighorn sheep live in separate groups by sex and age. Ewes and their lambs live in large herds, like those we had encountered. Mating season is in November and the ewes each give birth in May, typically, to a single lamb. Lambs nurse for up to 6 months. If the lamb is female, it will stay with its mother’s herd for life.

The Pinnacles Entrance to Badlands NP is just a couple miles north of the Pinnacles. As we approached the gate, Dale spotted a lone bison out in the prairie to the west. Other than this one, we didn’t see any others in the Park.

As we neared the town of Wall where we had left the RV, Dale spotted a small herd of Bighorn rams off to our right. Unlike the female offspring, males leave their mother’s herd when they reach 2 to 4 years of age and seek out a bachelor group that may contain up to 10 other males, typically led by a single, dominant ram (that’s him, furthest to the right).

It’s relatively easy to tell a male Bighorn from a female. Males weigh an average of 200 lbs.; females, 130 lbs. And the female’s horns stop growing soon after they begin to arc, while the male’s horns continue to grow and curl. The horns, by the way, constitute about 10% of a Bighorn sheep’s body weight. Sheep (and other Bovids) differ from deer in that both male and female sheep grow horns, but only male deer grow antlers. Additionally, sheep do not shed their horns, but deer shed their antlers every year.

We were soon back in Wall (pop. 872; est. 1907) where we stayed for 2 nights at the Sleepy Hollow Campground, the parking lot they call an “RV Park,” the only game in town. The campground is just a short walk from Wall Drug, just on the other side of the grain elevator and railroad tracks that abut the campground.

If you’ve ever been in South Dakota, you’ve heard of Wall Drug (est. 1931). They must be on half the billboards in the state – the Burma-Shave of South Dakota. The owners of Wall Drug enticed passers-by to stop by advertising they were giving away free glasses of ice water to travelers, quite a marketing gimmick in this desert-like environment. Like most tourist attractions, though, it’s over-hyped, but worth a stop if it’s meal-time or you’re in need of western wear or a T-shirt.

I bought two pairs of moccasins.

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