Bighorn ram with deformed horn dies

  • Butte, Montana Standard
  • Mar 30, 2023
‘Snailhorn,’ a bighorn ram that was a member of the Taylor-Hilgard herd sometimes seen near Quake Lake, attracted attention because of his deformed horn and apparent mettle. Photo by Nathan Norby

Harry Liss witnessed the collision between two bighorn rams that likely destined the smaller and younger of the two to acquire the nickname Snailhorn.

Liss recently recalled that day.

“Snailhorn thinks he is a big guy,” he said, and challenges a much heftier rival during the rut.

The rams butt heads. Liss sees a piece of Snailhorn’s right horn break off. A fox snags the fragment before Liss can and sprints away with it.  

“When the piece broke off there was blood running down,” Liss said.

He believes that head-strike was the fateful moment that engendered a deformity in the young ram’s right horn.

Over time, the horn came to resemble the whorl of a snail’s shell. And the abnormal shape it took also covered the ram’s right eye.

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The Taylor-Hilgard herd that included Snailhorn typically winters near Harry Liss’ house, which is downstream from Quake Lake. He watched the lamb grow into a ram.  

The wintering bighorn sheep hang out close at hand, Liss said. How close?

“They sleep on my porch. Is that close enough?” he said.

Snailhorn gained a reputation for being elusive. Elusive but not reclusive. He routinely hung out with other rams.

The unpredictability of a sighting of the unique bighorn added a dose of delight to each encounter.  

Julie Cunningham, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, had several encounters with ‘Snailhorn.’ She is photographed here at a hunting check station in the fall. Samuel Wilson, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Julie Cunningham felt it. Her work study student felt it. So did a host of other people who appreciated the apparent mettle of the ram who was part of the herd often seen in the vicinity of Quake Lake.  

Cunningham is a Bozeman-based wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Her territory stretches across nearly 2 million acres and includes the Bridger, Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges and the Taylor-Hilgard Unit of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness.

She and others routinely checked the health and status of the Taylor-Hilgard herd, which was also a focus of research.

“I saw Snailhorn multiple times,” Cunningham said.

That included the capture that fitted Snailhorn with an ear tag.

Damage to a horn likely caused during a head-strike with a rival bighorn ram resulted in a deformity for this sheep, who became known as ‘Snailhorn.’ He was part of the Taylor-Hilgard herd. Photo by Tom Bowler

She would hear reports of Snailhorn sightings from students, hunters, biologists and others.

“Year after year, he grew bigger, and his curl grew more and more unique,” Cunningham observed.

The visual obstruction caused by the deformed horn could have made Snailhorn more vulnerable to predators, Cunningham said. But Snailhorn’s companionable relationship with other rams likely allowed him to anticipate threats by being tuned to their reactions.

Cunningham said Snailhorn photos began showing up on social media and circulated far and wide.

Some who observed Snailhorn’s deformed horn implored Fish, Wildlife & Parks to intervene by tranquilizing the ram and removing the horn that obstructed his vision.

Cunningham said FWP demurred for several reasons. She noted that Snailhorn was a healthy animal and that a procedure to remove the horn could cause infection. In addition, she said, even though FWP is skilled at tranquilizing animals there is risk involved. He was also elusive and a capture operation could be both prolonged and costly.

By all accounts, Snailhorn had adapted.

“He was living his best life,” Cunningham said.

Then came the especially snowy winter of 2022-23, which both Liss and Cunningham said stressed the Taylor-Hilgard Herd and other wildlife in the vicinity.

Snailhorn died March 4. He was nearing his 11th birthday, Cunningham said – a ripe old age for a Montana ram inhabiting the challenging terrain of the Taylor-Hilgard Wilderness.”

His carcass was found along the road, but an analysis suggested he died from old age, starvation and winter stresses, and not a vehicle impact.

Cunningham said she is grateful that Kelly Galloup found Snailhorn’s carcass and ensured that it go to FWP. Snailhorn’s skull and horns will be preserved in a European mount at FWP’s regional office.

Liss said Snailhorn seemed frisky enough during the most recent rut.

“I was watching him and he had his eye on a lot of girls,” he said.

Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks released a new population of bighorn sheep into the Tendoy Mountains on Friday morning near Lima. The reintroduction of bighorns to their historic range was sponsored by various conservation groups, including the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation and the national Wild Sheep Foundation. The previous Tendoy bighorn population was eliminated starting in 2015 because the population was struggling with disease.