In the Field

Amazing Alaska Animals – Dall Sheep

Amazing Alaska Animals - Dall Sheep

In this blog article, we’re heading up into the alpine meadows and the steep mountain ridges to have a look at the Dall sheep of Alaska. These iconic creatures are most well known for the big, curled horns that the males develop, and they’re one of the most easily recognized species of Alaska wildlife. However, even though they’re easily recognized, Dall sheep are not always so easy to find and observe. These fascinating animals prefer relatively dry habitat in often very steep, treacherous terrain in the mountain ranges of Alaska. They can also be hard to spot while in snow-covered areas due to the effective camouflage of their white fur.

Male sheep are known as rams and the females are called ewes, and they can be rather difficult to tell apart when they’re young as both sexes develop horns. After about three years or so, they become much easier to differentiate, as the males begin to mature and start developing the massive, full-curled horns that they’re known for. Meanwhile, the female’s horns remain short and skinny by comparison. The horns of Dall sheep grow continually from the spring months through the early fall, and eventually slow down and stop when winter arrives. Due to this constant starting and stopping of horn development, characteristic “growth rings” as they’re called, form along the horns, which help in determining the age of a particular ram or ewe.

Life Cycle

Alaska Dall sheep hunting
A pair of Dall Sheep rams cooling off near a mountain stream.

Rams can start having offspring when they’re around one and a half years old, but they usually hold off on breeding regularly until they reach full maturity and establish a level of dominance, which is noted by a massive, full curl set of horns.

Ewes typically start to breed and have their young when they’re around three or four years old and, in most cases, have one lamb a year. Ewes give birth to their lambs between May and June, and during that time, much like the mountain goats of Alaska, they seek out protected, rugged, hidden areas up in the mountains to give birth in solitude, which helps them avoid predators.

Like many other species of Alaska wildlife in their youth, such as moose and caribou calves, bear cubs and blacktail deer fawns, life can be hard for a Dall sheep lamb, as they face many dangers and constant threat from predators such as bears, wolves, coyotes, and even eagles. Many lambs die in the first thirty to forty days of their lives.

Dall Sheep lambs
Life isn’t easy for Dall sheep lambs.

Mature, adult rams live in small groups by themselves and typically don’t associate with the females until the breeding season in November and December. The rams are well known for their horn clashing which they do as a means of establishing their dominance and order within their band. Unlike the various species of male deer that fight during the rut, however, rams will fight occasionally throughout the year, but more so during the breeding season.

Mature Dall sheep rams can occasionally reach a weight of 300 pounds, though they usually weigh much less, while the females can max out around 150, but likewise, on average weight a little less. Dall sheep have a life span of around twelve years, but have been known to live as long as nineteen. Much like the mountain goats of Alaska, the Dall sheep population growth rate is slow. In fact, the Dall sheep has the lowest population growth rate of any species of Alaska wildlife. This is due to low birth rates in general, predation by wolves, bears and other predators, and the weather. While the Dall sheep population tends to thrive and expand during years with a mild winter, severe winters can greatly reduce the population of sheep in a hurry.

 

Diet

Dall Sheep lambs

Dall sheep have a diet that’s similar to mountain goats and they eat a variety of grass, sedges, lichens, moss, etc. However, the diet of Dall sheep can vary somewhat, depending on the particular mountain range where they live and what time of year it is. Dall sheep also consume minerals from the dirt and have been known to travel many miles to find a good mineral lick. These areas can also draw in several different bands of sheep from different areas, which contributes to a good genetic diversity of the species.

So there you have it, that’s a quick overview of the iconic Dall sheep of Alaska. Check out the video below to see more…

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