Las Vegas » If there’s a more perfect state animal for Nevada than the desert bighorn, we’d like to see it.
The sheep populate the Silver State’s countryside, making a hardscrabble living in one of the nation’s most inhospitable climates.
"The bighorn is representative of everything about Nevada," said Doug Nielsen, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Wildlife. "It’s rugged. It lives in a rugged landscape. It makes its life in a harsh environment. It has had its ups and downs like the human residents of Nevada, but it continues to fight and hang in there."
The desert bighorn, which became Nevada’s official state animal in 1973, has long traveled alongside Nevada’s people. Prehistoric petroglyphs feature the sheep, which natives in the region revered as a source of food, pelts and tools.
So what makes the desert bighorn a special breed?
Unlike other bighorns, its hooves are cuffed and concave on the bottom to help grip craggy rocks as the animals migrate across mountains. The sheep can gain a foothold on a 2-inch ledge, jump between ledges 20 feet apart and run up gravelly mountainsides at 15 miles per hour.
It has keen senses — it can spot activity almost a mile away — that have helped it survive.
The desert bighorn also has a nine-stage digestive cycle that lets it get the most out of limited desert vegetation.
Even with those advantages, it’s not easy: Just a third of lambs survive their first summer, according to statistics from the National Park Service.
"It’s an animal that is specifically designed to live in one of North America’s harshest environments," Nielsen said. "Clark County is the driest county in the driest state in the union. The terrain is comprised of jagged, steep mountain ranges. And the plant life sticks you and pokes you. They live and thrive in that environment."
At a mature weight of about 200 pounds, the desert bighorn is smaller than the Rocky Mountain bighorn, which can weigh in at nearly 300 pounds.
A full set of horns can come in at nearly 30 pounds, or more than 10 percent of the sheep’s body weight.
Today’s Nevada herd is quite healthy, at about 9,000 head, mostly in the south, Nielsen said. That’s up from around 3,000 in the 1960s. But the higher numbers don’t mean the sheep are home free.
Threats include the development of new highways and housing communities that block migration paths and a fatal upper-respiratory disease sweeping through herds in the Eldorado, McCullough and Spring mountains around Las Vegas.
The illness has bigger ramifications for sheep populations across the region: It could be harder in the future to find healthy adults to rebuild herds in Utah, California and Arizona, Nielsen said.
For now, at least, the desert bighorn is going strong. To see the animals up close, head to Boulder City’s Hemenway Valley Park, where they visit like clockwork every day from April to October, coming down from the mountains from midmorning to late afternoon.
For the best look at the sheep, Nielsen recommends bringing a chair or sitting under a park shelter and waiting quietly.
If you’re still enough, they will wander within a few feet of you to munch on grass. Start moving around or edging closer, and they will pull away.
"We just encourage people to remember that they’re wild animals," Nielsen said. "We want people to keep their distance."
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