How to Identify a Legal Ram While Dall Sheep Hunting

Along an alpine ridge line, binos raised, you finally  glass a ram in the distance. This is a lucky moment and while even arriving at this scenario can be considered a trophy unto itself given how elusive Dall sheep and bighorn sheep can be, correctly identifying whether or not the ram in question is legal is another task altogether.

And it can be difficult to do once that cocktail of rapid heartbeats, adrenaline, and awe kicks in. But it’s a critical question to know the correct answer to — even as this  remarkable moment unfurls. What is a legal ram? 

To identify a legal ram while Dall sheep hunting, the ram must meet one of three requirements: one horn must complete a full 360-degree curl; both horns must be broomed (or broken); or the ram must have a minimum of eight growth rings, this is the trickiest way to determine a legal ram at distance.

Knowing whether a ram is legal or not means more than just following the law, it's a pledge to sustainable hunting, a practice ingrained in respect for wildlife and its ecosystem. In this context, recognizing a legal ram becomes a crucial skill.

Use this article as your compass to simplify the intricacies of identifying a legal ram during sheep hunting. We'll focus primarily on Dall sheep, covering every peak and valley on the topic, leaving you with expert insights, practical tips and in-depth knowledge to enrich your backcountry experience.

So lace up your boots, the ghosts of the mountains await.

Understanding and Identifying What Makes A Legal Ram?

A legal ram, in hunting terms, is one that meets specific horn curl criteria. Often, it's judged by the size and curve of its horns, those that complete a full-curl often indicate a legal ram. Regulations vary by region, underscoring the need for knowledge of local hunting laws.

Commit the word 'full-curl' to memory, because in Dall sheep hunting, a legal ram must have a full-curl horn to be legal. The circular growth of a Dall ram's horn typically takes about seven to eight years to form and can have a spread of 33 inches.

This physical attribute is paramount as it directly affects the legality of hunting a particular ram. Regulatory bodies such as the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, for instance, use the full-curl rule as a measure to ensure sustainable hunting practices, protecting younger rams and facilitating a balanced population in the wild.

Classifying Features of a Full-Curl Ram:

To classify a Dall sheep ram as a "full-curl," at least one of these three criteria from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has to be met:

  • Full Circle: At least one horn forms a complete circle (360 degrees) when viewed from the side
  • Broken Horns: Both horn tips are broken
  • Growth Rings: A ram can be considered full curl if it's eight years or older, a fact determined by counting annual growth rings (this method requires close inspection and expert judgment)

Getting any of these criteria wrong comes with consequences, both legally and ecologically.

Unlawful hunting of underage or non-legal rams can lead to fines, loss of your hunting licenses, and even imprisonment.

Ecologically, taking a ram that isn't fully mature can decimate the natural balance of sheep populations and ultimately threaten the survival of the species.

So the big question is, how do you do this before you take your shot? 

Evaluating and Judging Rams

Identifying a legal ram requires more than just a casual glance. Trained eyes often rely on tried-and-true techniques such as the perfect circle test, the stick test, and the angle test to determine a ram's legality. Each method is unique, providing a distinct lens through which to assess these magnificent creatures.

  • Perfect Circle Test: The perfect circle test is a basic field assessment where you try to visually fit the horn of the ram into a perfect circle. If the horn curvature fits the circle without exceeding it, the ram is most likely a legal one.
  • Stick Test: The stick test is another quick method where an imaginary line or stick is drawn from the base of the horn to its tip, crossing the top of the head. If the horn extends significantly beyond this line, the ram is likely to be a legal ram.
  • Angle Test: The angle test requires a bit more expertise. It involves estimating the angle at the base of the ram's horn. If the angle is close to 90 degrees, the ram is probably not yet of legal age. However, if the angle is 180 degrees or more, the ram is likely a mature specimen and potentially legal to hunt.

Judging the size and quality of a ram goes beyond mere legality. It's an appreciation of the splendid creature in its full glory. Here, the horn's characteristics come into play.

Notice the overall length of the horn, its mass or base circumference, and the quality of the curve. A high-quality ram usually has a deep, sweeping curve, an impressive length, and substantial mass, especially at the base. 

Do Rams Lose Their Horns?

Unlike deer, rams do not lose their horns. Ram horns are permanent structures that grow continuously throughout their lifetime. This continuous growth helps in determining a ram's age and health status.

This means the size and shape of a ram's horns can tell a story of its life, including its age, battles won, and the nutritional resources it had access to.

How Fast Do Ram Horns Grow?

The rate of a ram's horn growth varies and is influenced by factors like genetics, nutrition, and age. Horns grow rapidly during the first four to five years of a ram's life. After this period, the growth rate slows but continues until the ram's death. In their prime, rams often exhibit the most impressive horn growth, making them a coveted trophy for hunters.

Use Multiple Methods to Determine a Ram's Maturity

Aging a ram in the field is challenging; factors like nutrition and genetics can impact horn growth, making it hard to understand a ram's age without a tremendous amount of experience. That's why it's so important to use a combination of methods to suss out the maturity of a ram, using a mix of horn size, shape, and other physical characteristics (body size, and shape, e.g.) Plus, the terrain, distance, lighting, and position of the ram can all influence your judgment. That's why it's important to know the perfect circle, stick, and angle tests before you start sheep hunting.

You can even practice these methods at home using pictures or while glassing rams in the field. The more you practice, the better you get and the more confident you become in your ability to identify a legal ram.

The 4 Types of Wild Sheep in North America

Scattered across the rugged North American landscape, four distinct species of wild sheep make their home: the Dall Sheep, Stone Sheep, Bighorn Sheep, and Desert Bighorn Sheep.

Each species, characterized by its unique coloration, horn size, and geographical range, presents a different hunting challenge and reward. While we've focused almost entirely on Dall sheep in this article so far if you're hunting any of these species, a deep understanding of each species will allow you to better appreciate the pursuit and the conservation efforts behind it. Let's take a closer look at North America's sheep.

Understanding Dall Sheep

Dall Sheep, known for their striking white coats, inhabit the mountain ranges of Alaska and parts of northwestern Canada. They prefer steep, rocky terrains where their excellent climbing skills keep them safe from predators. Dall Sheep are social creatures, living in herds segregated by sex outside the rutting season. Their primary diet consists of a variety of grasses, sedges, and lichens found in their harsh habitats.

Details of the Bighorn Sheep

The Bighorn Sheep, native to North America, are renowned for their massive, spiraled horns and brawny build. They are icons of the Rockies, but inhabit a range of environments; from alpine meadows and grassy mountain slopes to desert plateaus.

Bighorn Sheep are agile climbers, equipped with specialized hooves for rocky terrains. Rams engage in head-bashing contests for dominance, resulting in intense battles during the rutting season. Bighorns graze on grasses and browse shrubs, but in winter, they can survive on a diet of dry, brittle grass.

Is It Rare to See a Bighorn Sheep?

Spotting a Bighorn Sheep can be rare. Since they inhabit steep, rugged, and hard-to-reach areas, they are nearly inaccessible to most people. Their elusive behaviors and ability to blend into their terrains make them even more challenging to locate and observe.

Unfortunately, another reason it's rare to see them is their numbers were significantly decreased due to past unregulated hunting and disease brought by domestic sheep. But due to extensive conservation efforts, their population is on a slow, but steady rise.

The rarity of encountering a Bighorn Sheep in the wild plays a massive role in why it's such a thrilling experience. 

The Contrast between Dall Sheep and Bighorn Sheep

While Dall Sheep and Bighorn Sheep share a family, they exhibit differences in behavior, habitat, and appearance. Dall Sheep, native to Alaska and parts of Canada, are pure white or lightly colored and prefer higher, colder climates.

Bighorn Sheep, prevalent across the American West, exhibit a brown to dark chocolate hue and dwell in diverse environments, from high-altitude ranges to desert canyons. In behavior, both species live in gender-separated groups, but Bighorns are known for their intense ramming battles during the rut season.

About the Desert Bighorn Sheep

Desert Bighorn Sheep, a subspecies of the Bighorn, are perfectly adapted to life in the arid desert landscapes of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. These sheep have lighter coats compared to their mountain counterparts, blending seamlessly with their desert surroundings. Despite the inhospitable environment, Desert Bighorns are hardy survivors, capable of going without water for extended periods.

They are agile climbers, negotiating steep, rocky terrains to escape predators. Their diet comprises mainly desert plants, grasses, and sometimes cactus. Like other wild sheep, Desert Bighorns live in separate ram and ewe bands outside the mating season.

Stone Sheep Insights

Stone Sheep are a captivating variant of the Dall Sheep, living in the northwestern region of British Columbia. Unlike the Dall, Stone Sheep have darker, smoky grey coats, giving them their "stone" moniker.

They share the Dall's love for steep, rocky habitats, offering both escape routes and vantage points against predators. Stone Sheep, like their cousins, are grazers, feeding on grasses, sedges, and lichens. Their social structure mirrors that of the Dall Sheep, with rams and ewes living separately for much of the year.

Sheep Hunting: Preparing for the Ultimate Hunt

Sheep, elusive and agile, inhabit some of the most formidable terrains that Mother Nature has to offer. Whether it's the Dall sheep in the severe Alaskan ranges or the Desert Bighorns mastering the arid, rocky landscapes, these creatures command respect. Their homes are not for the faint of heart; they're a crucible, shaping and testing the very essence of these creatures.

Taking on such resilient animals in their domain is not a mere weekend hobby. It's one of the most physically and mentally draining pursuits you can embark upon, pushing the limits of your endurance, strength, and mental fortitude. The cliffs and harsh environments demand nothing less than peak physical conditioning and razor-sharp mental acuity. And even then, they often yield their rewards reluctantly.

To stand a chance against such remarkable odds, you need to be prepared. Preparation goes beyond packing the right gear; it encompasses honing your body and mind to withstand and thrive amidst these challenges. To succeed, you must train like the predator you are aiming to become.

And that's where MTNTOUGH comes in. Built for the backcountry hunter, its training programs will help you build the mental toughness and physical strength needed to conquer those rugged peaks and outlast your elusive prey. So, as you set your sights on those ghostly figures in the mountains, equip yourself with MTNTOUGH, because the hunt for the wild sheep is as much about readiness as it is about hunting the sheep. Start with a 14-day free trial to see what it's all about.