For the first time in over 30 years, North Dakota will not have a bighorn sheep hunting season.
A devastating outbreak of bacterial pneumonia killed approximately 30 to 40 percent of the North Dakota bighorn sheep herd in 2014. The loss, which totaled at least 100 animals, compelled the state to cancel the 2015 bighorn hunting season. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department reported most of the sheep lost were mature rams. Department Chief Jeb Williams noted the disease could have a long-term impact on the sheep population. It could kill even more animals, and it could potentially require a 10-year population recovery time.
Big game hunters consider bighorn sheep season in North Dakota a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Approximately 10,000 hunters apply for the five available licenses. Four of those licenses are distributed via lottery system, and the last one is auctioned off. The lucky hunters who receive a license for one season are prohibited from ever receiving another North Dakota bighorn sheep hunting license. This rule applies whether or not the hunters successfully bag a sheep.
On the decision to close the 2015 season, Williams said, “2015 is going to be a year of some intense surveying to really see what’s out on the landscape and we just didn’t think it is responsible for the department to give people a once-in-a-lifetime license when we aren’t even sure what remains as far as the big-horned sheep population in the northern badlands.”
Game and Fish biologist Brett Wiedmann also conducted an in-field survey and reported, “Mature rams typically live in the rough backcountry and you don’t see much of them until the rut. What I found is that we lost virtually all of our mature rams. I saw one, and that’s it.”
The bighorn population prior to the pneumonia outbreak stood at around 350 animals and was, by Game and Fish estimation, ready to surge forward and break the state’s record count. This is not going to happen now.
Bighorn sheep were extinct in North Dakota by 1905 until late 1956, when 18 sheep were transplanted from British Columbia. The first lamb from the small herd was born in the wild the following year. Since then, the program has had its share of ups and downs. This recent herd decimation is perhaps the most dramatic setback to date. However, officials are determined to rebuild the sheep population and maintain the long-term viability of the state’s 58-year-old bighorn sheep program.
“Bighorn sheep are a symbol of the badlands,” Williams said. “Like the rugged land in which these animals inhabit, bighorn sheep belong in western North Dakota.”