North Dakota cuts bighorn licenses again as disease persists

The bighorn sheep numbered as many as 125 animals just a few years ago. There are about 80 of them there now. (Photo by Bob Drieslein)

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department is issuing only three bighorn sheep hunting licenses this year because the western Badlands population is still dealing with a deadly bacterial pneumonia outbreak.

Biologists counted 77 rams in a summer survey, which was 12 fewer than last year and 27 fewer than in 2016, according to big game management biologist Brett Wiedmann. They also counted only four yearling rams.

A disease event like the pneumonia outbreak that was first detected in 2014 can have a long-term effect on lamb survival, according to state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.

“We are seeing that impact now,” he said. “Sometimes it takes up to 15 years to work out of the system.”

The outbreak killed about three dozen sheep in 2014, leading Game and Fish to cancel the late-fall hunting season in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades. The agency issued eight licenses the following year after the deaths tapered off.

But last year, the disease spread to three previously unaffected herds and a summer survey documented a significant drop in the number of rams, which hunters seek for their trophy horns. Game and Fish reduced the number of licenses to five.

A population survey that was completed in March counted 265 bighorns, which was the smallest population since 2006.

Bighorn hunting is popular in North Dakota, with thousands of people typically applying for a handful of once-in-a-lifetime licenses. They’re distributed through a lottery drawing, except for one that is auctioned every year by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation to raise money for sheep management. This year’s auction raised $87,000, according to Williams.

The bighorn season opens Nov. 2 and runs through the end of the year.

Categories: Hunting News

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