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Published September 14, 2012, 08:46 AM

Bighorn sheep numbers increase in western North Dakota

MEDORA, N.D. (AP) — Many big game populations in western North Dakota are at low levels but bighorn sheep are bucking the trend, and that could mean better hunting in future years.

MEDORA, N.D. (AP) — Many big game populations in western North Dakota are at low levels but bighorn sheep are bucking the trend, and that could mean better hunting in future years.

A survey this summer showed at least 299 bighorns, nine more than last year and just 17 below the record in 2008, the state Game and Fish Department said.

Three harsh winters beginning in 2008 hurt many wildlife populations, but the sheep proved hardier, big game biologist Brett Wiedmann said.

"Our bighorn sheep population remained stable following three epic winters, so we're pleased to see an increase subsequent to last winter's mild conditions," he said.

The current population includes a good number of young rams, which could lead to increased hunting opportunities in future years as the animals reach maturity, Wiedmann said. Game and Fish this year reduced the number of sheep licenses from six to four because of a decline in the number of mature rams. The season is Oct. 26 through Nov. 8.

This summer's survey found a record 251 bighorns in the northern Badlands, up 18 from last year, and 48 in the southern badlands, a drop of nine over the year. A record 51 lambs were observed in the north, but only four were seen in the south.

"Bighorn sheep are doing very well in the northern badlands but continue to struggle south of the Interstate (94)," Wiedmann said.

Biologists suspect that is due to pathogens introduced from domestic goats in the late 1990s that resulted in an extensive die-off of bighorns.

The department's survey does not include about 30 bighorn sheep that live in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

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