North Dakota Bighorn Sheep Thriving After Historic Relocation

by Jon D. B.
north-dakota-bighorn-sheep-thriving-after-historic-relocation

With a full year behind them, North Dakota’s two new resident bighorn sheep herds are doing far better than expected.

Biologists hoped for the best but didn’t know what to expect. In January of 2020, KUIU’s Conservation Direct Initiative became the first-ever sheep relocation to be fully-funded by company and customers alike. As a result, three new bighorn sheep herds were reunited with their species’ historic habitats: two in North Dakota, and the third in Utah.

In total, 25 ewes and 5 rams were brought from Montana to North Dakota in order to restore their presence in the western region of the state. Specifically, KUIU released the dual herd into tribal lands in western North Dakota, a historic habitat of the bighorn sheep. Locally, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation peoples signed into an agreement with the state to manage their reintroduction.

As a result, the Fort Berthold Reservation now hosts a population of bighorn sheep once more. And they’re thriving.

Biologists noted that 20 of the ewes were pregnant at the time of their relocation in Jan. 2020. When North Dakota Game and Fish Dept. (NDGFD) surveyed the bighorn sheep this past September – they spotted an incredible 19 lambs.

This “is phenomenally good,” says NDGFD biologist Brett Wiedmann. “Even 10 lambs would have been a success. We certainly have a cushion here to have a really good first year,” he adds.

ND Tribes Co-Managing Historic Bighorn Sheep Reintroduction

The cushion Wiedmann mentions is vital. Though the count was strong at 19/20 this past fall, this does not account for a full winter survival, which is a rough business for a wild lamb. North Dakota has no shortage of natural predators, nor harsh winters.

Regardless, Wiedmann remains hopeful after a mild winter. NDGFD will perform another lamb count before the winter’s end to determine their status – and they have tremendous help in doing so.

The entire historic relocation is a partnership between the NDGFD and the TATFWD. This second entity, the Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division (TATFWD) is even more thrilled to see this native species thrive on fellow indigenous lands.

“It sounds like the genetics, the herd, the habitat are all a good formula,” says MHA Tribal Councilman Cory Spotted Bear of the feat.

After another year of co-monitoring, TATFWD will begin “sole management” of the western herds come 2022. 

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

Additional ND Bighorn Tags are 5-6 Years Away

Hunters, however, are eager for an increase in ND bighorn hunting tags. The state did, after all, have a record number of hunters apply to hunt bighorn sheep in 2020. But the overall species population in the state is still immensely fragile – and beyond so in western ND just a year on from their reintroduction.

As a result, NDGFD biologists state that any additional hunting tags are a ways off. It will be at least another 5 to 6 years, when the first rams reach 8 or so years old, that tags will be added.

Then, under state agreement, NDGFD will receive three future licenses from the tribe, The Bismarck Tribune cites. These will then go into the state’s bighorn lottery for North Dakota resident hunters.

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[Source: The Bismarck Tribune]

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