BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — After scattering like wildfire in a gust of wind, 49 bighorn sheep have settled into their new home in the Little Belt mountains.
“One sheep went 24 miles north on release day, turned around, and came back,” Jay Kolbe, wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told Reuters. White Sulfur Springs.
Kolbe was able to see the big move because the animals wear GPS collars that reveal their location twice a day for five years. One of five trapped and relocated rams traveled about 10 miles east of the Judith Gap area after being released before returning to Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.
“It’s not uncommon for them to be unsettled first and then come together again,” Kolbe said.
Conservation groups involved in the transfer were excited about the creation of a new herd.
“It’s as important to us as possible,” said Brian Solan, executive director of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. The Billings Gazette. “This is the biggest step forward in nearly 20 years.
“The driving force behind this was that FWP saw an opportunity and engaged us and the Montana Wool Growers in a collaborative approach. And they did. »
The sheep were released Dec. 17, a day after capture operations began on the south bank of the Missouri River near Winifred in Hunting District 482. The sheep population there is 20% above target of FWP. Quicksilver Air Inc. was contracted to catch and capture the animals from a helicopter. The helicopter crew then transported the captured sheep to FWP staff and volunteers waiting nearby. At the transition site, animals were medically screened, collared and prepared for a cattle trailer ride to the Little Belts.
Kolbe said many ewes could be pregnant because bighorn sheep have a high pregnancy rate. Although the sheep were exposed to pneumonia that wiped out or severely limited other herds of Montana bighorn sheep, Kolbe said those sheep avoided contracting the disease.
From the breaks, it was about a three-hour drive to the South Fork Judith River, where the sheep were released into habitat identified as suitable for bighorn sheep. One sheep died shortly after being released from an injury sustained when it hit a fence, Kolbe said.
“When we proposed the project to the (Fish and Wildlife) Commission, small belts typically contain several large patches of high-quality habitat,” Kolbe said. “There are a few other areas in the Little Belts where sheep were historically, and we think they may be again.”
Bighorn sheep were wiped out in the Little Belts after the farm era. Previously, animals were plentiful in the mountain range southeast of Great Falls and northwest of Harlowton.
During his stay along the South Fork of the Judith from 1880 to 1882, famed Montana artist Charlie Russell made note of the area’s abundant wildlife. He was a teenager at the time, living with Jake Hoover, a hunter and prospector “cut off from the outside world”.
“These parks and the mountains behind them teemed with deer, elk, mountain sheep, and bears, in addition to beavers and other small fur-bearing animals,” he wrote in a 1917 article.
Evidence of bighorn sheep is also found in Native American art left on cliffs along the Smith and Judith River watersheds.
“We have real prehistoric records of the presence of sheep in the form of petroglyphs within a mile of where we released the sheep,” Kolbe said in a video.
Over the past 10 years, a few bighorn sheep have migrated on their own from the Missouri Breaks to the Little Belts, but the herd has never thrived. FWP biologists were unable to check more than six sheep at any one time across the entire range.
With the new bighorns being transferred, Kolbe hopes the herd can one day grow to 125 head, in which case FWP can approve a limited hunt. A herd similarly transferred near Bonner, western Montana, took about 15 years to reach a population capable of sustaining the hunters’ harvest, Kolbe said. Bighorns settled in the Elkhorn Mountains and became a huntable population within 10 years.
The relocated bighorn sheep is a victory for an FWP program that has been through tough times. As part of the state’s conservation plan — adopted in 2010 — FWP has set a goal of creating five new huntable populations of bighorn sheep in the state by 2022. Yet attempts by the Department of transplant wild sheep in the mountains Madison and Bridger died on the vine.
Then, in 2014 and 2016, outbreaks in herds near Gardiner and the National Bison Range reduced herds.
Deaths from disease have raised fears that domestic sheep could transmit viruses to wild sheep. More recent research has ruled this theory out as the sole cause, but it’s still important for FWP to gain the trust of ranchers before bighorn sheep relocation.
In 2015, conservation groups in the Gallatin Valley sued the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest for grazing domestic sheep in the Gravelly and Centennial Mountains, citing in part fears that the cattle could spread disease to wild sheep.
In 2016, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the culling of a struggling bighorn sheep herd in the Tendoy Mountains near Dillon after repeated transplants failed to increase the population.
Combined, the problems caused FWP to reconsider its bighorn sheep program. One theory was that the agency could spread pathogens when it moved animals. All of these issues have delayed any new bighorn sheep projects as FWP sought the right approach, said Solan of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation.
“We pushed the department pretty hard on the bighorn sheep,” he said.
“I can’t stress enough how excited we are about this,” Solan added. “That’s the only goal of our group.”
“This project would not have been possible without the collaboration, financial support and volunteerism of landowners, NGOs, private businesses and local volunteers,” Kolbe said in a press release. “We appreciate all the partners who have come together to help.”
Funding was provided by the National Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Great Falls Chapter of Safari Club International, KUIU, Kenetrek and the Montana Bowhunters Association. Funds for the FWP came from the Bighorn Sheep Auction License Fund. The project has also been supported by private landowners, including domestic sheep farmers and members of the Montana Wool Growers Association, US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
The total cost of the project was nearly $150,000, Kolbe estimated. The GPS collars alone cost $110,000 and were donated by the National Wild Sheep Foundation and its state chapter who donated $36,000 for the collars.
“It’s just a true testament to all the people who helped make things happen, putting their money where their ideals were,” Kolbe said.
The FWP has identified other areas in the Little Belt Mountains that could be a new home for bighorn sheep, but no plans currently exist to relocate more sheep, Kolbe said. Before that could happen, funding and a source herd would need to be identified, nearby landowners contacted, and a public environmental process undertaken.
For now, Kolbe plans to locate the ewes in the spring to count the lambs.
“That will tell us something about predation rate and habitat quality,” Kolbe said.