After attending the first bison roundup in six years at Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit this week, I meandered over the Long X Bridge to try to see some of the state's bighorn sheep.
And I wasn't disappointed.
First, a little background: North Dakota's bighorns were extirpated in 1905, with Canadian bighorn introduced in the 1950s to repopulate the state. Today, about 300 to 350 bighorns roam the southwest and west central portions of North Dakota, generally between Watford City and Marmarth.
These include a small herd of 20 to 25 sheep in the area of the Long X Bridge and the CCC Campground south of Watford City along busy U.S. Highway 85.
The CCC Campground is generally the best bet for glimpsing the bighorns here, and I'd only tried one other time to see the sheep before I turned south on Highway 85 on Tuesday at lunchtime, just trying my luck.
Another car pulled off before me for the CCC Campground road just off the Long X Bridge, and I soon saw why. Nine bighorns and a white cow were grazing on a steep hillside, just going about their business.
I gazed in wonder for a minute, took a little video and some pictures before exiting the Jeep and inspecting them closer.
I shared a smile with the older men in the car before me, and continued on the road west as one man said more were down the trail.
So I continued on, and there ya go: Two pairs of rams and ewes around the bend, rams with pretty nice 3/4 curls.
Farther up, more bighorns, a herd of 10 with two nice rams and plenty of ewes and lambs. A couple of the 23 sheep I saw had radio collars on, tracking devices placed by North Dakota Game and Fish for location and study purposes.
The state's bighorns declined by 15 percent when a bacterial pneumonia struck a southwestern North Dakota herd, moving north along the Little Missouri River. The die-off led NDGF to close the 2015 season on bighorns, but 2016 will open Saturday, Oct. 28, with eight licenses in three units.
But anyway, I digress.
Last night after work, I thought I'd give the bighorns another go because I was disappointed with some of my ram shots and just wanted to get more pictures. From the way people talk around Watford, seeing the bighorns is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. My editor, 33-year resident, said he has only seen them once, when he covered their release into the badlands decades ago.
And so a 15-mile drive south of town, over the Long X Bridge and along the CCC Campground road, lo and behold, led me right to a herd of 24 with two pretty impressive rams.
For 90 minutes, I watched and photographed the sheep, drawing fairly close but making no sudden movements or sounds. If wildlife are reacting to your presence, you are too close, a national park ranger has told me.
Some interesting things happened.
First, one of the mature rams charged and chased several of the ewes about eight or nine times, knocking horns with one of the at one point. The herd would scatter around the small sage flats where we were, but none ever left or moved on.
Another ram also mounted one of the ewes before she moved away. Nuh-uh. None of that.
Two younger bighorns had radio collars, and one of these sheep had an apparent eye infirmity as it appeared cloudy and milky. Hopefully nothing connected to the bacterial pneumonia, which a NDGF video said is still present in the state's bighorns. The agency also counted 103 rams this summer, a new record.
Standing in the short grass, just chillin' with the bighorn sheep, the world seemed liked a simple place. How pleasant it must be to exist as a bighorn sheep in North Dakota, except for, ya know, the bacterial pneumonia and being hunted two months out of the year. And having a highway cut through your home.
With seeing the state's bighorns, I've now seen all of North Dakota's big game animals: mule and white-tailed deer, elk, moose and bighorn sheep.
What's next? Perhaps a mountain lion, says a friend of mine here.