Bighorn sheep herds show promise on North Dakota reservation

(Photo by Bob Drieslein)

BISMARCK, N.D. — Two herds of bighorn sheep released a year ago on tribal lands in western North Dakota have fared better than expected.

Gov. Doug Burgum in January 2020 signed an agreement with Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Mark Fox outlining the translocation and management of bighorns on the Fort Berthold Reservation, where the animals historically roamed.

Later that month, 25 ewes and five rams were brought from the Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana and released in rugged, remote areas near Mandaree and Twin Buttes.

Twenty ewes were pregnant. A September survey counted 19 lambs, “which is phenomenally good,” North Dakota Game and Fish Big Game Biologist Brett Wiedmann said. Even 10 lambs would have been a success, he said.

“We certainly have a cushion here to have a really good first year,” Wiedmann said.

MHA Tribal Councilman Cory Spotted Bear, who represents the Twin Buttes segment, is encouraged by the bighorns’ success, The Bismarck Tribune reported.

“It sounds like the genetics, the herd, the habitat are all a good formula,” he said.

The lambs still have to survive winter and potential predators such as mountain lions, according to Wiedmann. The winter so far as been mild.

Deep snow can negatively affect lambs, making them use more energy to dig for food and move around, and also leaving them more vulnerable to predators.

“These lambs their first year are having a really, really easy winter so far,” Wiedmann said.

The lambs will be recounted in February to see how many survived the first year. One ewe was killed. Officials suspect it was inadvertently shot by a deer hunter.

Game and Fish has been co-managing the herds with biologists of the Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division, which will take over sole management of the bighorns in 2022. The animals are collared for GPS tracking.

“This (co-managing) process is just sort of training them on how to manage bighorns, the survey methodology and disease testing and these sorts of things,” Wiedmann said.

The bighorns all tested negative for the bacterial pneumonia that has struck other herds in western North Dakota. Game and Fish “really scoured the landscape” for domestic sheep, which carry the pathogen, and found none anywhere near the new bighorns, Wiedmann said.

Hunting could begin in about five or six years, when the first rams will reach about 8 years old. Under the pact, Game and Fish will receive three future licenses from the tribe, which will go into the state’s bighorn lottery for North Dakota resident hunters.

Bighorn tags are highly coveted – a record 16,935 people applied for the six North Dakota licenses allocated in 2020.

Spotted Bear is excited about the bighorns for their cultural significance. The tribes historically hunted the animals, he said.

He also looks forward to what economic opportunities hunting might bring. A license auction would be a great boost for the Fish and Wildlife Division, and might also be an opportunity for local hunting guides, he said. A tag is “special thing,” he added.

“You’ve got a very slim chance to get it, but you’re happy for the people that do,” he said.

He acknowledged the project is still new. Officials’ early discussions raised questions of whether the bighorns would migrate or whether lambs would survive.

Now there is “a very serious prospect” of bringing more bighorns to other areas of the reservation in the next couple of years, he said.

“It brings excitement because they are beginning to establish themselves as a successful, healthy herd,” Spotted Bear said.

Boaters have seen the bighorns roaming the cliffs of the Little Missouri River arm on Lake Sakakawea, Wiedmann said.

Rancher Pete Fredericks, who lives west of Twin Buttes, came across the bighorns as they were crossing the road near his place in July. He was surprised by their large size.

“They were big like rams, but all of them were females, I suppose,” he said.

He’s only seen them once, and hopes to spot them again.

“It’s kind of a novelty to have those bighorns out here,” Fredericks said.

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