Crowds gathered Dec. 6 along Lower Gray Canyon near the town of Green River for the chance to see bighorn sheep rams during the rut season, when males compete for dominance over ewes. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

Whoever coined the phrase “stuck in a rut” clearly never saw bighorn sheep rams in action.

The bighorn sheep rut, or mating season, is one of the most exciting times of the year for wildlife lovers, as mature rams clash with each other to establish dominance and gain access to the females — or ewes.

During the most dramatic standoffs, two rams will rush toward each other at about 40 miles an hour, and the clamor of their horns is so loud that it can be heard from a mile away, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

While the rut occurs just once a year, it happens to be one of the easiest times to see the occasionally-elusive animals. Although the rams are still on the lookout for predators, they tend to be less wary of humans right now, according to Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Conservation Outreach Manager Brent Stettler.

“Generally, they’re more concerned with finding ewes,” he said.

Stettler was speaking just ahead of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources’ annual bighorn sheep viewing event along Lower Gray Canyon near the town of Green River, where he offered tips about the best places to spot the charismatic animals.

“I hope that this will just be an orientation, so you know where to go,” he said.

For much of the year, bighorn rams are typically out and about between daybreak and 10 a.m., or any time after 2 p.m.

“They’re kind of humanly lazy,” Stettler said.

But Utah Division of Wildlife Resources wildlife biologist Brad Crompton noted that the animals are more active between mid-November through mid-December, when they might travel as much as three miles from one day to the next.

“This time of year, they tend to be moving during the day,” he said.

Crompton advises sheep watchers to direct their gazes upward above the Green River, toward the cliffs and talus slopes that provide the best screening and hiding places from predators.

“It’s all about escape cover for them,” Crompton said.

Many of those same areas are also prime foraging grounds, thanks to summer rains that fed vegetation in the higher elevations of Lower Gray Canyon.

“There’s a lot of good feed up on those cliffs,” he said.

Without the aid of a good pair of binoculars, however, it can be tough to spot the animals, since they blend in with their stark surroundings.

“It’s really hard to see sheep because they look like the color of dirt,” Stettler noted.

He suggested that viewers should look out for the animals’ white backsides, which stand out against the dusty hillsides.

To state the obvious, people should not harass or threaten the animals. But as long as they keep a fair distance away from the rams, they don’t have to be too concerned about disturbing them.

“It’s nice if we keep our voices low, but they’re not really bothered by humans’ presence,” Stettler said.

The animals can usually be seen on both sides of the Green River just after the pavement ends, although there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there on any particular time or day.

Stettler suggested that smaller groups or individuals may have better chances of seeing the rams.

“I’m sure it would alarm any animal to see a caravan as large as the one we’re having,” Stettler said.

Closer to Moab, bighorns can be spotted on both sides of the Colorado River between the U.S. Highway 191/ state Route 128 intersection and the turnoff to Castle Valley. Other prime viewing areas include the road to Gemini Bridges, the Canyon Rims Recreation Area and Dead Horse Point State Park, according to Crompton.

Rut season is a perfect time of year to see rams

What: Bighorn sheep viewing

When: Early mornings or late afternoons

Where: Various locations across southeastern Utah. To reach Lower Gray Canyon, head north on U.S. Highway 191 and then drive west on Interstate 70 to the town of Green River. Take Exit 164; drive about 1.2 miles toward the town, and just past the Super 8 motel, turn right on Hastings Road and head north up Lower Gray Canyon past Swasey’s boat launch. The road is paved for the first nine miles; the next eight miles are well-packed dirt.