Bovids – Bison, Sheep and Goats

Family Bovidae

Bovids (hollow-horned ruminants) belong to the order Artiodactyla, the hoofed mammals with an even number of toes, and the suborder Ruminantia, the cud-chewing plant eaters. Bovids include the world’s cattle, antelopes, goats and sheep. There are about 138 species, with a natural distribution that covers most of the world except South America and the South Pacific region. There are five native bovids in North America: American bison, muskox, American mountain goat, American thinhorn sheep and bighorn sheep. Each has a completely different range and habitat as well as specialized behavior patterns, all offering unique hunting experiences.

See the listings below and follow the links for more information on each species or variety, information on hunting techniques and what to expect when pursuing this quarry.

American Bison

Bison bison

Bison are spread from the wooded mountains of British Columbia and Alberta down through sections of the western US and in spots of Mexico’s northern states of Coahuila and Chihuahua. There are two varieties of American bison. Most hunters are familiar with the plains bison, which once existed in huge herds that freely ranged across most of what is now the United States, through western Canada and into northern Mexico. Hunts for these animals are mostly on ranches of varying sizes. Opportunities to hunt free-ranging bison are limited but can be found.

Wood bison are found in northern boreal Alberta and northeast British Columbia, where they are free ranging and exceedingly challenging to hunt. Only a small quota of licenses is made available by the respective provincial wildlife departments each year. In 2015 a herd of 130 wood bison were successfully reintroduced to the wild along Alaska’s Innoko River in a partnership between the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The population is not large enough yet to support a sustainable harvest and is not open to hunting.

Plains Bison

Wood Bison


Ovibos moschatus

Buey amizclero (Sp), Moschusochse (G), Boeuf musque (F). The name “muskox” refers to the strong, musky odor emitted from the male’s facial glands during the rut.

The muskox and the takin of Asia are the only surviving members of the primitive tribe Ovibovini, which at one time had an extensive distribution in the Northern Hemisphere. The muskox, or a near relative, occurred in northern Europe and Asia during the late Pleistocene Epoch but died out for unknown reasons, though possibly surviving in Siberia until about 2,000 years ago. Muskoxen are believed to have immigrated to North America over the Bering land bridge, and at the height of the Glacial Age were found as far south as New Jersey. Not discovered by Westerners until 1869.


Muskox males measure four to five feet (1.2 - 1.5 m) at the shoulder and weigh 600-750 pounds (270-340 kg), sometimes more. The females are about two-thirds the size of the males. The largest specimens have been recorded from the Canadian mainland; those from the high arctic and Greenland are smaller. In captivity, individual males have weighed as much as 1,450 pounds (660 kg), females to 660 pounds (300 kg).

The muskox is relatively unchanged from prehistoric times. Its long, shaggy coat equips it superbly for life in the artic. Its body hair is the longest of any animal, with individual guard hairs sometimes exceeding 24 inches (61 cm) in length. The dense inner coat of fine wool (quiviut to the Inuits, who prize it as knitting material) protects it from cold and frost, while the outer coat, reaching past the knees, sheds snow and rain. The build is stocky, with slightly humped shoulders, short neck and legs and very large hoofs. The head is carried low. General coloration is dark brown, with the saddle and lower legs pale. Males have massive horns, forming bosses that nearly meet on top of the head, then curve down, around and up to sharp points. Females have similar horns, although they are much less massive.


Muskox are gregarious and usually in herds of 10-20, but sometimes 100 or more. Males fight fiercely for possession of the females during the rut, repeatedly charging head-on with their horns smashing together. The rut is July to September, with one calf (rarely twins) born April through June and weaned after one year. The female gives birth every one or two years. Calf mortality is variable, and some years most survive. Life expectancy is estimated at 15 years, although individuals have been known to live as long as 23 years in the wild.

Mainly a grazer in summer and a browser in winter. Eyesight and hearing are believed to be acute. The muskox usually moves slowly and stolidly, but is actually swift and agile if necessary, able to sprint at least 25 mph (40 km/h) and run for a considerable distance at 15-20 mph (24-32 km/h). Easily climbs steep slopes and cliffs. A good swimmer. Its principal enemy is the wolf. Muskoxen are brave, capable fighters that have learned to deal with wolf packs by forming a tight circle or a phalanx.


The muskox lives in the arctic tundra, preferring the moist habitats in the summer and in the winter staying on hilltops or slopes where winds minimize the snow depth.


Present natural populations are on the north slope of the Canadian mainland from about Cape Bathurst eastward to Hudson Bay, throughout the Canadian arctic islands (except Baffin Island), and on the northern and eastern costs of Greenland. There are introduced and/or reintroduced populations in Alaska, Quebec and the west coast of Greenland.

Outside North America, there are introduced populations in Svalbard, Norway and Russia.

Because of the openness of their habitat and their tight formation in response to danger, muskoxen are not difficult to take with modern weapons. A muskox hunt should be valued for the cultural experience and the adventure it provides. Present-day hunts are conducted from Inuit villages by native guides, utilizing boats in summer, dog teams or snow machines in winter. Hunts are available at different times of the year, but winter offers the best skins and the most complete arctic experience.

Barren Ground Muskox

Greenland Muskox (White-faced Muskox)

American Mountain Goat

North American Sheep

Ovis sp.

Sheep are members of the subfamily Caprinae, which includes the muskox and takin (tribe Ovibovini); the American mountain goat, serows, gorals and chamois (tribe Rupicaprini); and the tahrs, goats, aoudad, bharals and sheep (tribe Caprini). According to Valdez (1982), wild sheep can be divided into three groups based on anatomy, chromosome number and habitat preference: (1) moufloni-forms (mouflons of Europe and Asia, and urials of Asia); (2) argaliforms (argalis of Asia); and (3) pachyceriforms (thinhorns of Asia and North America, and bighorns of North America). The pachyuceriforms (meaning thick horns) are sometimes called American sheep.

Scientists believe North American sheep emigrated from Asia across the Bering land bridge about a half million years ago and were later forced south by advancing glaciation. When the glaciers receded, some sheep stayed behind and others returned north, which may explain why thinhorns and bighorns evolved with such different characteristics.


Pachyceriforms have compact, muscular bodies that are adapted to climbing steep, precipitous terrain. Their legs are relatively shorter than those of other sheep. They have distinct rump patches, but do not have saddle patches, bibs or neck ruffs. Except in the Dall sheep, the tail is broad and dark in color and the front of the legs is brown to black. The coat is coarse and brittle, each hair containing a sealed air pocket that serves as insulation. Hoofs have cushiony pads that act as shock absorbers and grip well on slippery rock. As in all sheep, there are scent glands in front of the eyes (preorbital), in the groin (inguinal), and between the hoofs (interdigital or pedal). The preorbital glands are dark, vertical skinfolds that protrude beyond the hair. Horns are massive, with bases measuring 12-17 inches (30-43 cm) in circumference. The skull and horns of a bighorn may sometimes weigh as much as 40 pounds (18 kg). The horns are homonymous, which means that the right horn grows in a right-hand spiral and the left horn in a left-hand spiral. Chromosome number is 54 in North American thinhorn and bighorn sheep. (It is 52 in Siberian thinhorn or snow sheep.)


Gregarious but segregated into male and female-plus-juvenile herds. Young females will remain with their mother’s group, but males leave when 2-4 years of age and join groups of rams. Ram herds have a strict dominance hierarchy based on age and horn size. Dominance battles between rams are ritualized and can involve spectacular horn clashes, especially on rutting grounds. Dominant rams join the ewes during the rut and do most of the breeding, preventing younger rams from participating. Rams are polygamous but do not gather harems. Mating season is typically during November-December although it may occur later in warmer regions. Mating seasons are timed so that lambs are born when temperatures are tolerable and there is new plant growth. The single lamb is born in the spring and weaned by autumn. Females are sexually mature at 18 months, drop their first lamb at two years, and have been known to bear young when as old as 16 years. Pachyceriforms are characterized by relatively low reproductive rates (one offspring after 170-180 days gestation) and long life spans (as long as 12 – 18 years). However, according to Geist, longevity depends on population status: in declining or stable populations, most sheep live over 10 years; in expanding populations with heavy reproduction, the life span averages only 6-7 years.

Sheep are mainly grazers, but also browse occasionally. They are diurnal, feeding in late afternoon and morning, and again for a short period after midday. Their resting places are on elevations with a view in all directions. Their beds are small depressions scraped out with their feet. Eyesight is remarkable although different from that of a human, being much better at spotting moving objects in obscure terrain, but not very good at resolving lines or shapes (Geist). Sense of smell is good. Little is known about hearing ability, but mountain sheep are thought to be unconcerned with most sounds, as there is much natural noise in mountains from wind, running water and falling rocks. An excellent climber and jumper and a good swimmer. Very alert. When in danger, retreats to rocks or cliffs with speed and agility. Usually able to evade predators in steep, rugged terrain. North American sheep are preyed upon by wolves, cougars and bears, but population losses from predators are small compared with those suffered by most sheep in Asia.


Grassy pastures close to rugged, precipitous terrain that provides escape from predators. A requirement is a dry winter climate with light snowfall, or with winds to remove snow and expose forage.


To many hunters, wild sheep are the ultimate trophy animals of North America. Since 1949, when Grancel Fitz first used the term “grand slam” in a magazine article, taking the four kinds of North American sheep recognized at that time—Dall, Stone, Rocky Mountain bighorn, and desert bighorn—has been the dream of most sheep hunters. Sheep are usually hunted in remote wilderness areas, from tented camps or more primitive siwashes that are reached by bush airplane, horseback, or backpacking. The hardest part is locating a good ram, and this usually entails a great deal of climbing to viewpoints and glassing with binoculars and spotting scope. Once a suitable ram has been spotted, it is normally stalked as quickly as possible. A sheep hunter should be physically fit (in “sheep shape”) and a good shot. Often the ram will have moved on before the stalk is completed, and sometimes the hunter will run out of days without making a successful stalk, or seeing a ram that meets his standards, and will go home without firing a shot. This is all part of sheep hunting, and does not deter the dedicated sheep hunter, who would rather hunt mountain sheep than do anything else.

Taxonomic Notes

There are three species of pachyceriforms. One is the snow sheep or Asian thinhorn sheep (Ovis nivicola) of northeastern Asia. The other two are the American thinhorn sheep (O. dalli) and bighorn sheep (O.canadensis) of North America.

American Thin-horned Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

Desert Bighorn Sheep

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