North Dakota Sees Second Consecutive Record Count of Bighorn Sheep

by TK Sanders

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s 2021 bighorn sheep survey revealed a record number of animals roaming the western part of the state. The survey, which recounted lambs in March, found 335 bighorn sheep, up 4 percent from 2020 and 15 percent above the five-year average. The previous record-high was 322 animals back in 2020.

Biologists counted 99 rams, 175 ewes, and 61 lambs in their survey, which did not include approximately 40 more sheep in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, according to North Dakota Game and Fish. The survey also excluded bighorn sheep introduced into North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation two years ago.

Big game biologist Brett Wiedmann said he was pleased with the results, especially the gradual growth of the sheep populations year over year. The sheep population rose for the fourth straight year, according to biologists.

“We were encouraged to see the count of adult rams increase to near record levels; and adult ewes grew to record numbers,” Wiedmann said. “Most encouraging was a record lamb count corresponding with a record recruitment rate.”

The only cause for concern comes from the southern badlands, where populations declined to the lowest levels since officials introduced bighorns to the area in 1966.

Can hunters harvest bighorn sheep in North Dakota?

Department biologists count all of North Dakota’s bighorn sheep in late summer; and then recount lambs the following March. Counting the lambs a few months later helps biologists to determine recruitment.

The bighorn sheep translocated in January 2020 from Rocky Boy’s Reservation in Montana to Fort Berthold also fared particularly well. The transplants moved just two years ago, so their acclimation is still underway. According to the game department and the Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division, that population actually doubled in those two years. Such active growth is considered exceptional for bighorn sheep populations.

The state now enjoys almost 450 total animals amongst all of its different governing agencies, which include National Parks Services. Wiedmann said the next benchmark is 500 bighorns in the state. Such a lofty goal sounded impossible a few years ago, he also said.

According to veterinarians, the sheep also show low levels of toxic diseases as well, which likely contributes to their staggering growth. Dr. Charlie Bahnson, Game and Fish veterinarian, said he saw a low prevalence rate of Mycoplasma during last winter’s disease monitoring. The deadly sheep virus first appeared in 2014.

North Dakota Fish and Game experts will likely open a bighorn sheep hunting season in 2022 given continued population growth. Officials will determine the status of the season in September after the summer population survey.

In 2021, four licensed hunters successfully harvested a ram in North Dakota. One issued license went unused in the state during that time, as well.