Bighorn sheep count up 8 percent in western N.D. Badlands

The bighorn sheep population in the western North Dakota Badlands grew by 8 percent, according to a survey recently completed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.

Big game biologist Brett Wiedmann, who works out of the department’s Dickinson office, said the results are positive after the bighorn’s all-age die-off from bacterial pneumonia in 2014.

“To see an increase the year after the die-off began is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Wiedmann wrapped up the department’s count earlier this month. Game and Fish biologists count and classify all bighorn sheep in late summer and then recount lambs the following March, as they approach one year of age, to determine recruitment, according to a news release.

The survey revealed 292 bighorn sheep, a count that included 88 rams, 160 ewes and 44 lambs. Wiedmann said 76 percent of lambs survived the winter, an encouraging number.

The count is also a 3 percent increase from the state’s five-year average.

Thirty bighorns believed to be in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park weren’t included in the count, and is a number that Wiedmann called an estimate.

A bighorn sheep hunting season is tentatively scheduled to open later this year, but only if there isn’t a recurrence of bacterial pneumonia. The season’s status will be determined Sept. 1, after summer population surveys are completed.

“As it stands right now, we’re pretty confident we’re not losing many adults at this point, so we expect to have a season,” Wiedmann said.

Wiedmann said the pneumonia virus can persist in a bighorn sheep herd for decades.

“We’re by no means out of the woods,” he said.

The northern Badlands population, which was hit the hardest by the die-off, increased 13 percent from last year, according to survey figures. However, the southern Badlands population was down 19 percent.

Adult mortality rates among the bighorns “slowed significantly” last year, and the lamb survival rate compensated for the adult losses of 2014.

“The bad news is that many bighorns are still showing signs of pneumonia, so next year’s survey will be important in determining if the state’s population is continuing to recover from the disease outbreak, or if the pathogens are likely to persist and cause a long-term population decline,” Wiedmann said in a statement.

Dr. Dan Grove, a Game and Fish veterinarian, said disease testing last winter revealed that pneumonia pathogens were present in 16 of 22 bighorns tested.

Game and Fish brings back bighorn sheep season

BISMARCK — The western North Dakota Badlands will likely have a bighorn sheep hunting season again this fall, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department announced Monday.

A bacterial pneumonia virus affected the state’s bighorn herd so badly in 2014 that Game and Fish closed the 2015 season.

But the animals have recovered well enough that Game and Fish Wildlife Division Chief Jeb Williams said a season will happen this fall, barring unforeseen pneumonia issues this spring and summer.

“What we found is we still have some harvestable adult sheep out there that we’d just as soon see the public utilize,” Williams said.

Historically, two to eight licenses for male bighorn sheep are drawn yearly in North Dakota, Williams said.

The 2016 season status will be determined Sept. 1 after the completion of summer population surveys, he said.

“There’s still potential for animals to die of pneumonia,” Williams said. “That’s why we have the provision in there that we’ll do our summer surveys first.”

Bighorn sheep hunting can only take place in select Badlands hunting units. The units include all of Slope and Golden Valley counties, and parts of Billings, McKenzie and Dunn counties. This year, no hunting will be allowed south of either the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North or South Units.

“It’s such a tremendous resource that we have, and it’s only found in the Badlands,” said Bruce Stillings, big game management supervisor in Dickinson’s Game and Fish office. “It’s quite a unique opportunity for our hunters to be able to hunt. The reopening is excellent news for us as a department and to the hunters alike.”

Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist in Dickinson, said as many as 11,000 people typically send in the $5 nonrefundable application to draw one of the few bighorn sheep hunting licenses the state allots. He said that’s more applicants than Wyoming and Idaho typically receive, even though they have larger bighorn sheep populations.

“It’s one of the toughest draws of any license in North America each year we have a season,” he said. “It’s truly the hunt of a lifetime.”

The North Dakota bighorn sheep bow-hunting season is scheduled to run from Oct. 21 to Dec. 31, with a regular gun season from Oct. 28 to Dec. 31.

 

Watching the herd

Wiedmann is in the process of completing the 2015 bighorn sheep lambing survey and will conduct the comprehensive survey this summer.

He said lamb numbers through the herd look good, and said Game and Fish is paying close attention to the herd’s susceptibility to the pneumonia pathogens.

“It could flare up at any time,” Wiedmann said. “If we have a recurrence of pneumonia, we could lose a significant number of animals.”

However, he said the department wouldn’t have started the process of reopening the bighorn sheep hunting season if it was concerned another population disruption would happen soon. He said the pneumonia cases have slowed since late 2014.

Williams said the pneumonia issue in bighorn sheep is complex and controversial, and called it the “No. 1 concern among sheep biologists.”

He said national research has shown bighorn sheep that have contact with domestic sheep are at risk of getting the virus.

“There’s a lot of research associated with that issue,” Williams said. “At this point in time. We don’t have a definitive answer of how that happens.”

 

Additional elk licenses

Thirty-five additional elk hunting licenses have been added for the two western North Dakota hunting units that encompass much of the same area as the bighorn sheep hunting unit.

Game and Fish added 37 elk licenses, making 338 available in the state. The E3 unit, which is Billings, Golden Valley and Slope counties–not including Theodore Roosevelt National Park–added 10 any-elk licenses and 15 antlerless elk licenses. The E2 unit, which is Dunn and McKenzie counties, added 10 any-elk licenses.

Williams said the state has closed Sioux County to elk hunting.

He said a herd is growing in that area, so Game and Fish is working with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and private landowners to allow them to increase in numbers. He said an attempt could be made at reopening elk hunting in Sioux County next year.

 

Moose licenses added

An increasing moose population allowed Game and Fish to allow 70 more hunting licenses for the animal. The majority of the new licenses can be found in the north central units, where there has been an increase in antlerless moose.

“Moose have been doing very well in the prairie areas of North Dakota,” Williams said. “Their numbers have really been expanding … we’d just as soon have the public utilize that opportunity rather than trucks and vehicles hitting them.”

There will be 202 moose licenses drawn in the state.

The moose bow hunting season runs from Sept. 2-25, the regular season in Units M8, M9 and M10 run from Oct. 7-10 and the regular gun season for Units M5 and M6 is from Nov. 18 to Dec. 11.