Dall sheep have snowy white coats, impressive curved horns and cloven hooves with special padding to help them cling to steep hillsides like Velcro cutout dolls. They can be found throughout Alaska and northwestern Canada, and their population in the wild is stable — there are an estimated 70,000 Dall sheep in Alaska alone. Yet these sheep are not the same as their domesticated brethren, and here’s why.
What Dall Sheep Look and Sound Like
The ram’s thickly ridged horns curl round as they grow to form a full circle in about eight years and account for 10% of a mature ram’s body weight. Meanwhile, the ewes have shorter horns with less pronounced ridges.
Their horns grow constantly through the spring, summer and fall, but growth slows and stops in late fall and winter. This creates unique ring patterns called annuli that help keen observers determine a sheep’s age. Dall rams may live up to 16 years, while ewes as old as 19 years have been spotted.
This video shows hardy Dall sheep foraging sparse hillsides in winter.
Rams and ewes have unique sounds. The females vocalize in strident, bleating calls across the rocky slopes, whereas males call out in gruff, throaty rumblings that can be heard from far away.
Where Dall Sheep Wander
Dall sheep, also called thinhorn sheep or Ovis dalli, are wild sheep native to northwestern North America. They have a wide range across Alaska, including the Kenai Mountains, Chugach Mountains, Tok area, Nutzotin and Mentasta. In Canada, Dall sheep live in northern British Columbia, the Yukon and the Northwest territories.
Dall sheep favor relatively dry country and thrive in open alpine meadows, ridges and steep slopes where they can feed and rest and have the advantage over predators if they need to make a fast getaway up steep rocks and crags.
Dall sheep migrate seasonally in alpine and Arctic regions, preferring grassy mountainsides in spring, high alpine pastures in summer and areas with less snow in winter.
The Life of a Dall Sheep
Ewes become pregnant at 3 or 4 years old, giving birth to a single lamb every year in late May or early June. Mothers-to-be typically retreat to the most rugged cliffs to shield their newborns from predators. Lambs grow quickly and begin to feed on vegetation about a week after birth and are weaned by October.
Herbivorous adult Dall sheep feed on grasses, lichen, moss and other plants. Adult rams can weigh 300 pounds and live in bands, associating with ewe groups mainly during the mating season in November and December.
Rams are well-known for their horn clashing, but fights break out to establish order, not over the possession of ewes. These clashes mainly occur just before the rut when rams meet unfamiliar rams of similar horn size. Rams can breed as early as 18 months but usually sire offspring after reaching a dominant rank.
Dall Sheep in Popular Culture
Dall sheep can be seen on nature shows made by conservationists and magazines, such as National Geographic. While sheep jokes are prolific, none seem to specifically apply to the Dall branch of this quadrupedal ruminant mammal family.
Many people hunt Dall sheep for trophies, especially rams with impressive horns. However, they can be seen in several zoos, including the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck, ND, and the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, AK.
Dall sheep have many predators, including wolves, coyotes, black bears and grizzlies, and golden eagles sometimes prey on the young. Hunters also kill Dall sheep for sport, but the species isn’t among the top picks for big game hunters due to a lack of meat.
This is good news for future generations, who will be able to enjoy sighting these unique creatures with curly horns in their natural habitats.