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Myth Busting the One-Horn Ram

One-horn ram skull.

NDOW’s newest hunt provides a once-in-a-lifetime chance at a special sheep.

By Mike Cox, Bighorn/Mountain Goat Staff Biologist

This is the first year that NDOW has offered the One-Horn Ram Hunt. The idea came from various bighorn hunters and guides who have reported seeing one-horn rams while scouting or hunting. Mature rams that only have one full horn are not contributing to the breeding of ewes and are not desirable to be harvested in standard ram hunts. Harvesting of these one-horn rams will have no impact on the productivity of the herd and may actually be a benefit to the herd where water and forage resources are limited.

The number of one-horn rams in a herd is not well quantified. It is more of a phenomenon in Mojave Desert bighorn herds and the proportion of one-horn rams to total rams is highly variable from one herd to the next. It normally occurs in older rams, typically 7 years or older. So, for a given herd that might have 20 older-age rams, there might be one or two one-horn rams. For a herd like the Muddy Mountains in southern Nevada with a higher prevalence of one-horn rams, there may be five-ten out of 75 older-aged rams.

How To Lose A Horn

Captured one-horn ram from November 2021 in southern Nevada.
Captured one-horn ram from November 2021 in southern Nevada.

What causes horn loss? The most common cause is an upper nasal cavity bacterial infection. The condition is best known as Sinusitis, but there are other medical terms to describe the infection and its destruction of the bone tissue. Associated with the bacterial infection is a bot fly infestation in the living horn core inside the horn sheath. The bot fly larvae feed off the horn’s bony core flesh and along with the bacterial infection, will destroy and “rot” the inner bone tissue and the horn sheath (made of keratin, same material as your fingernails), eventually causing the horn to fall off within a few inches of the skull.

It is extremely important for hunters during this hunt to take their time and clearly view both sides of the ram’s horns to ensure the shortest horn is less than half the length of the longest horn. When in doubt, don’t pull the trigger. A one-horn ram hunt is considered a “management hunt” which is defined in Nevada Administrative Code (NAC) as “a hunt established to seek harvest of additional wildlife within a population”.

NDOW may pursue other management ram hunts where extremely high ram to ewe ratios exist or an “open hunt” concept where consistently low hunter success occurs due to dense tree cover, very challenging access to a unit, and/or extremely low bighorn density.

Bighorn Myth Busting

  • The disease that causes bighorn sheep to die of pneumonia in all-age die-offs and chronic lamb mortality for years after is a combination of several bacteria or pathogens that live in the upper respiratory tract of bighorn and not in the soil. The “trigger” pathogen was brought to the western U.S. by domestic sheep in the 1800s, transmitted through wild and domestic sheep interaction, and caused entire herds to be extirpated. Because of our successful bighorn sheep restoration efforts across various “interconnected chains” of mountain ranges, naturally wandering bighorn seeking resources and animals to breed, are not only sharing genetics (a good thing) from herd to herd but are also transmitting the deadly pathogens to adjacent bighorn herds (a bad thing).
  • Historically, before European man explored and settled the west, the entire state of Nevada and the entire Great Basin and Mojave Desert areas were inhabited by desert bighorn sheep. Even today, we see desert bighorn inhabiting and thriving in a wide variety of habitats from along Lake Mead at 1,200 feet to almost 12,000 feet on top of Mt. Jefferson. There are no geographical boundaries to four-legged animals in Nevada. Within 2 years of a desert bighorn transplant in eastern Nevada, 4 Rocky Mountain bighorn rams went on a 100 mile “walk,” found the new herd, and bred desert bighorn ewes, refuting the idea that for thousands of years, Nevada had 3 separate bighorn subspecies.
  • Though Nevada issues more bighorn ram tags than any other state in the west, there still are many applicants who have yet to draw a tag. Some people are not supportive of the Specialty ram tags issued each year that could be going to the “average Joe”. In 2021 there were only eight of 385 total rams tags that were either auctioned off or won in a special draw like Silver State, PIW, or Dream Tag programs. That is only 2 percent of the total ram tags. Better yet, in 2021 Specialty ram tags generated $974,000 compared to only $83,000 from all resident and nonresident standard tags. That is almost 12 times as much funding that is available for worthy wildlife projects like bighorn translocations and conservation efforts, fire rehabilitation and seedings, land acquisition of critical wildlife habitat, and so many more.