February 17, 2010

Game and Fish thins bighorn sheep herd

By Tina Foreman
Farmer Staff Writer

Driving through the Badlands south of Watford City is a scenic drive made even more enjoyable by the opportunity to see one of North Dakota’s few bighorn sheep along the route.
Western North Dakota is home to six bighorn sheep herds, including one herd just east of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This herd can often be spotted hanging around Highway 85 or on the bluffs that overlook it.
“The Badlands south of Watford City are ideal bighorn sheep habitat, and in 2006 we started a herd just east of the park,” says Brett Wiedmann, North Dakota Game and Fish Department (NDGFD) big game biologist. “In the past couple of years, the herd has grown to around 50 animals, and started crossing Highway 85, causing some concerns.”
According to Wiedmann, having the sheep crossing the highway or living in the ditches along the highway has caused a safety concern for both the sheep and highway travelers.
“This herd of sheep has become accustomed to wintering in the park because it makes for a much easier winter for them,” says Wiedmann. “The park doesn’t have a problem with the sheep traveling in and out, but the safety issue needs to be addressed. So the decision was made to decrease the size of this herd by relocating some of the sheep and keeping this herd smaller.”
After losing three ewes last year to traffic, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department decided the herd was too large and it was time to take action.
“Originally, we planned to keep the herd around 50 animals,” states Wiedmann.” But due to the recent issues, we have made the decision to thin the herd and keep it at 20 to 30 animals.”
The plan is to remove 10-15 sheep from the herd and relocate them to two established herds that are more remote.
“I’ve been watching the herd every day to decide which animals we want to remove,” adds Wiedmann. “The plan is to take three to four rams that are around two years old and 10 to 12 ewes that are around three years old. We want to take younger animals because they are more receptive to change. If we took the old rams and ewes, they would most likely go back to the original herd.”
The animals will be captured by a helicopter crew from Colorado using net guns. Once captured in the net, they will be taken to a holding facility where they will be checked over and fit with radio collars. Then the animals will be transported by horse trailer to their new herd.
“The herd we are working with is currently living in the park, but it is not the park’s core herd,” says Wiedmann. “These sheep only winter in the park, and because it is much easier on the animals, we only relocate in the winter.”
Part of the herd will be moved northeast of its current location to the Burnt Creek area of McKenzie County while the others will be moved south to an area near the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“We try to keep all of the sheep herds around 50 animals because sheep are very susceptible to disease,” adds Wiedmann. “Even though we haven’t had a lot of problems with disease in North Dakota, we still try to keep the herds at a manageable size just in case.”
According to the NDGFD, there are six bighorn sheep herds in North Dakota with five of them located around the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
“There are about 150 sheep in these six herds,” states Wiedmann. “The habitat around the Badlands is ideal for sheep which is why there is such a high density in this area. We monitor the herds regularly to maintain herd size and watch for disease. We expect to move sheep again from this same herd in about three years.”
Although the move will make for less viewing opportunities along Highway 85, the NDGFD is hopeful that it will make the highway a safer place for both the sheep and highway travelers.