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ND Outdoors: bighorn sheep population update

Published: Nov. 20, 2021 at 7:55 PM CST
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BISMARCK, N.D. (KFYR) - Bighorn sheep were absent from North Dakota for close to 50 years until reintroduction by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in 1956.

“Right now between the population managed by the Game and Fish Department, which totals about 330, and the Park Service about 40, then Three Affiliated Tribes have around 50 to 60, so we’re closing in now on, after this year, maybe potentially 500 bighorns. So it’s probably the most bighorns in North Dakota in 150 years, at least, so it’s been a real success story and restoration of a big game species,” said Brett Wiedmann, North Dakota Game and Fish big game biologist.

Wiedmann says the real boost to the bighorn population in North Dakota was when bighorns were introduced in 2006 and 2007 in the northern badlands from the Missouri River breaks in Montana.

“They are just perfectly adapted to our cold winters, and they have done so well as far as adult survival and lamb survival and population growth, they’re really just taking off,” added Wiedmann.

The population in the northern badlands is doing great, however the southern badlands not so much.

“This population south of the interstate suffered from a pneumonia event back in the late 90s and just never recovered. So the ultimate goal long-term would be to depopulate the entire southern Badlands and then reintroduce healthy bighorns and start over again,” said Wiedmann.

The state held its first hunting season in 1975, and in the last half-century, the largest rams were harvested by residents.

“But in 2020 we shot the new number one, number two and number five all time bighorns in the state. And we’ve harvested around 260 bighorns since 1975, so it was an incredible year,” added Wiedmann.

And what is the management goal for bighorns in North Dakota?

“We kind of looked at the amount of lambing habitat that the state has, and the densities of bighorns use, using that lambing habitat. And so ultimately, we feel if we could reach 750 within the grasslands, that’s kind of our ultimate goal,” said Wiedmann.

This year’s drought in western North Dakota had little impact on bighorn sheep.

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