Golden Eagle Vs. Bighorn Sheep: Face-Off Caught on Camera in Mojave Desert

A desert bighorn sheep and a golden eagle were caught on camera squaring up for a confrontation in the Mojave Desert.

The picture, snapped in the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada by one of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) motion sensor trail cameras, shows the golden eagle spreading its wings and opening its mouth in front of an artificial water spring called a guzzler, while the sheep stares it down.

This is a rare look at a desert bighorn coming face to face with one of its predators. Golden eagles have been filmed previously swiping and killing young desert bighorn sheep. However, in this interaction, the tables may have turned: this behavior from the golden eagle may be defensive, as the species is famous for their territorial nature. Here, the eagle is taking a similar stance to one that it performs when faced with another intruding eagle.

eagle vs sheep
A picture from a motion-sensing trap camera showing a desert bighorn sheep confronting a golden eagle in the Mojave Desert. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

"Golden eagles prey on bighorn sheep lambs, so encounters with adult bighorn sheep like this one are less frequent," said the caption of a USFWS social media post sharing the picture.

While golden eagles aren't facing any major threat to their populations currently, the deliberate harm of them, their nests or their eggs was outlawed in 1962 under the U.S. Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. Despite this, it's estimated that over 70 percent of recorded golden eagle deaths are due to human impacts, both deliberate and as a side effect of our way of life.

Bighorn sheep, of which desert bighorn sheep are a subspecies, are found across the U.S.'s desert mountain ranges. According to the U.S. National Park Service, they have become highly adapted to life in the desert, being able to survive body temperature fluctuations of up to several degrees, unlike the majority of mammals. They can last for weeks or even months between drinks of water.

The desert bighorn is considered "sensitive" to extinction, according to the Bureau of Land Management, mostly due to human actions like hunting and creation of competition with domestic livestock species. By the 1960s, desert bighorn populations had dropped from the tens of thousands to between 6,700 and 8,100.

The Desert National Wildlife Refuge serves as the largest intact habitat for desert bighorn sheep in the entire Mojave Desert, according to the USFWS.

Newsweek has contacted the USFWS for comment.

Trail cameras like the one that captured this rare moment between the eagle and the sheep are dotted throughout the refuge area, revealing unique and previously unseen interactions and behaviors in the wild as the animals themselves trigger the motion-activated trail cameras.