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Lightning-struck bighorn ram horns adorn new mount
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Lightning-struck bighorn ram horns adorn new mount

BRETT FRENCH Jan 14, 2021 Updated 13 hrs ago

Although he has a trophy room of about 100 mounts that feature everything from mule deer and whitetails to bruiser bull elk, one of the newest additions to Scott Chester’s collection will be an animal he never hunted.

Montana Wildlife Artistry taxidermy, operated by father and son Mitch and Jim Howe, are preparing a life-sized mount of a bighorn ram for Chester. The base of the ram's horns measured more than 16 inches and stretched out to 44 inches. It would have scored close to 206 inches under the Boone and Crockett scoring system — a trophy-class animal — if it weren’t for one large flaw. The ram has a baseball-sized gap burned into the back of the right horn.

“It has a great big hole in it,” Jim Howe said. “It’s pretty wicked looking.”

Chester bought the ram horns in 2013, along with two smaller sets of bighorn horns, at a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks auction in Bozeman. He purchased them because they were unusual, and also because in 30 years of applying for a Montana bighorn sheep ram tag, he has never been lucky enough to draw one.

“Obviously if you actually killed an animal like that it would be the trophy of a lifetime,” he said.


The ram was one of nine bighorn rams struck by lightning on Wild Horse Island in Flathead Lake. According to a 2010 Missoulian article, the rams were lounging beneath a ponderosa pine atop a hill when lightning hit. One of the animals was found 30 yards away, probably wobbling off in a state of shock before dying.

The hooves and legs on several of the dead sheep were burned, according to Jim Williams, who was Region 1 wildlife manager at the time, the Missoulian reported. He investigated the kill site and noted that the base of some of the horns on the dead sheep had been darkened by the strike.

Somehow one ram survived. Walking with a noticeable limp, it was photographed with a large hole burned into its right horn, resembling the charred gash in the horns Chester is having mounted.

"It looks like it was blown off, almost," island resident Barry Gordon told the Missoulian in 2010.

FWP Region 1 supervisor Jim Williams said he thinks the sheep died in the fall, not long after his relatives were killed in August. The ram was estimated to be 10 years old.


Every few years FWP auctions off antlers and horns from roadkill or poached animals confiscated during investigations. The money raised goes to the state general fund and then to food banks around the state. In 2017 when two bighorn ram heads were auctioned off, one brought in $2,700 and another fetched $650.

“The value of wildlife varies so much and is so much about the individual and the aesthetics they like,” warden Capt. Dave Holland told the Helena Independent Record at the time. “What I like may not be what you like so it’s so hard to put one value on something.”

FWP sold the burnt bighorn to Chester for $3,250. He also purchased the horns of two smaller rams that he had taxidermists prepare as European mounts — just the skull top and horns.

Wild Horse Island — the largest island in Flathead Lake, the majority of which is a state park — is known for its superior bighorn sheep genetics. In 2018 a 9-year-old Wild Horse ram that died of natural causes was scored at 216 3/8 inches, breaking the old world record by nearly 7 inches. The massive ram’s horns and skull tipped the scales at 48 pounds.

The two other lightning-struck rams Chester purchased scored close to 180 inches. They adorn a wall in his Phoenix home.


A lifelong archery hunter, Chester left his North Dakota homeland as a young man to search for elk in Washington. He later moved to Alaska before relocating to Montana. He’s pursued a variety of wildlife, but his favorite hunt is stalking bull elk during archery season.

Chester turned his passion for elk into conservation, working as a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation board member. While a volunteer for RMEF, Chester was featured in several episodes of the nonprofit group’s “Team Elk” hunting videos.


Although Chester’s barbecued bighorn ram is unusual, taxidermist Jim Howe said it isn’t the strangest animal he and his father have worked with since the business opened in 1994.

Hollywood prop men used to be regular clients, and they often had odd requests, he said. Petey the Parakeet for the movie “Dumb and Dumber,” starring Jeff Daniels and Jim Carrey, was a Howe creation. They also created several animals for the movie “Doctor Doolittle,” “Geronimo” and a warthog in the movie “Anaconda,” Howe said.

“They used to call us pretty regular,” he added. “Nowadays they went digital.”

Got away

Chester has a room full of mounts, but he said his greatest hunting memory is of a bull elk he encountered in Montana’s Spanish Peaks while archery hunting with a friend. High atop a mountain with nothing but a small bush to hide behind, a herd of about 30 cow elk and satellite bulls passed within 80 yards of him. His comfort range for shooting is about 60 yards, he said, so he sat back and enjoyed the expansive mountain view and wildlife parade.

His relaxation was interrupted when a trophy-class bull appeared, trailing the herd, pausing every now and then to nibble at the grass. The bull was within 30 yards when Chester released an arrow and heard a loud “thwack.” The bull jumped, and Chester thought he had struck his target. Instead, as the bull ran off he saw the arrow embedded on the inside of the elk's opposite antler. The antlers were so wide that the arrow didn’t stretch across to the tines on the other side.

Chester said he sometimes has a difficult time remembering where he shot a certain animal that now graces his trophy room, but he never forgets the huge Spanish Peaks bull that got away.

When the Howes finish their taxidermy work, the scorched bighorn ram will be positioned on a large rock fireplace in Chester’s trophy room. It will become another animal with an interesting story behind it, even if the tale is not of Chester’s own making.

“It’s kind of cool he ended up staying in Montana,” Chester said.


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Bighorn ram's holey horn not caused by lightning

Brett French Jan 28, 2021
July 25, 2010

Brett French

When Tom Butts saw a Jan. 14 story about a bighorn ram with a large hole in its horn, it must have seemed like déjà vu.

In the summer of 2010 a bighorn sheep was photographed on Wild Horse Island with a sizable cavity in its right horn. This was right after eight other rams had been struck and killed by lightning.

“We always assumed it was part of our little group that got sizzled,” said Jim Williams, Region 1 supervisor for Fish, Wildlife & Parks in Kalispell.

The animal eventually died, likely of old age as it was estimated to be about 10 years old. The average lifespan for male bighorns is 9 to 12 years. Because a large part of Wild Horse Island is a state park, where hunting is not allowed, the horns and skull were picked up and given to FWP. Three years later they were sold at a FWP auction in Bozeman.

Ten years later the ram’s horns arrived at a Billings taxidermy shop. Laurel hunter Scott Chester had purchased the horns and is having a full-sized bighorn sheep mount created.


In writing a story about Chester’s plans for the unique ram, a 2010 Missoulian story was referenced regarding the lightning-struck rams. However, in a follow-up 2010 story, Butts and Don MacCarter disputed that the ram had its horn struck by lightning.

When Butts saw the recent story about the ram horns getting a new life, the scenario was playing out again 10 years later.

“That sheep was definitely not hit by lightning,” he said.

He has photographs of a ram on Wild Horse Island with similar-looking damage to its horn dated prior to the deadly lightning strike in August 2010. His photos were taken in 2009 and July of 2010.

Bob Garrott, a Montana State University professor of Ecology who has studied bighorn sheep, agreed.

”I don't think this could be caused by lightning as it is too common and is always seen in the same area of the horn,” he wrote in an email.

Butts, who wrote his master’s thesis on bighorn sheep and worked as a wildlife biologist for FWP in the 1970s, agreed that the ram may have been injured in a fight and the injury decayed the horn.

"I went up and looked at the eight that died, and boy, they were zapped, no question,” Butts said in the 2010 article. “But people probably saw the story, knew this one was in the vicinity, had that big hole in the horn that looked blackened, he's limping around, and they said, ‘Man alive, he survived the lightning strike.' It'd be easy to make that assumption."

Horn holes

So what happened? Garrott, who has handled a lot of bighorns during sheep studies, provided some insight.

“I have personally seen holes in the back of mature bighorn ram horns multiple times in my field work and have also seen photographs of rams others have taken with holes in the same area of the horns as the photograph you sent, although not as large,” he said.

“While no one can be sure, the general consensus is this horn damage is, in all likelihood, the result of the tremendous shock the horns receive when head butting during the rut,” he added. “The guess is there are rare times when horns impact at a specific orientation that causes the damage to the back of the horn.

Garrott said without witnessing such a fracture it is hard to say for certain, but added, “It is likely that the butting causes breaks in the horn that might not be obvious at first but over time as the horn continues to grow and age, and with continued head butting, the cracks/holes open up to become more noticeable.”


Adult rams can weigh between 170 and 300 pounds. Their horns alone can weigh 40 pounds. When they are seeking mates in November, males will fight and strike horns at speeds up to 20 mph. Their skulls have two layers of bone to help absorb the tremendous shock.

The outer sheath of their horns are made of keratin, the same protein found in hair, hooves and feathers. Keratin is considered “one of the strongest and toughest biological materials in nature,” according to a study by UC San Diego scientists published in 2018. The research goes on to point out, however, that “Keratin is dead tissue … which means it cannot be remolded or regrow once damaged.”

To study the structure of the sheep’s horns, the scientists cut into them and found that where impact was most common the horns were up to 1.5-inches thick, but hollow on the inside. They also studied the make-up of the sheep’s horns at a microscopic level, revealing how well-built they are to absorb and dissipate energy.


So the ram horns Chester purchased for his mount may not have been struck by lightning, although they certainly make for an interesting story.

“I have photos of another, younger ram that had a chunk out of its left horn,” Butts said in a recent phone call.

Other than the hole in its horn, he said the younger sheep appeared to be healthy. The older sheep, on the other hand, was in bad shape, unable to shed its winter coat when it was photographed in 2010.

Wild Horse Island, in Flathead Lake, remains one of the premier places to see and photograph bighorn sheep, Williams said. It’s also where the world record sheep lived, based on a scoring system used by hunters to measure the size of the horns. That world-record ram died in 2018. Its horns weighed 48 pounds.


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