Bighorn Sheep

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by Doug Leier


It’s a pretty consistent fact of life that the more we have, the less we appreciate it, and conversely, what we’re lacking we may tend to hold in a little higher regard.

In North Dakota’s outdoor world, the whooping crane population is a pretty good example. They’re continental population is only a few hundred, and for many people, spotting one as they migrate through the state in spring and fall is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

But it’s not just a phenomenon linked to endangered species. It even applies to everyday occurrences like the weather. The way that this winter is dragging on we will truly appreciate the first few days of temperatures that climb even close to average.

The same holds for wildlife as well. The less we have, the more we appreciate. Think of game species like sage and ruffed grouse, or even pronghorn and mule deer. Not to mention moose and elk.

As a life-long North Dakota resident, it was nice to hear the annual spring bighorn sheep survey revealed around 300 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota. That may not seem like a lot, but bighorn sheep were once gone from the state, and their successful restoration is sort of a conservation badge of honor.

A closer look at the numbers indicate the 2012 count was second highest on record and grew 5 percent above last year’s survey. In total, biologists counted 87 rams, 156 ewes and a record 54 lambs.

Big game biologist Brett Wiedmann said the northern badlands population was the highest on record, but the southern badlands herds declined slightly. “Although adult rams and ewes were virtually unchanged from 2011, we were very pleased to see a record number of lambs recruited into the population, as well as a record recruitment rate of 38 percent,” Wiedmann said. “Nearly all of the lambs we counted during last summer’s survey survived the winter.”

Game and Fish Department biologists count and classify all bighorn sheep in late summer and then recount lambs the following March to determine recruitment.

A bumper crop of lambs is indicative of a healthy population, so Wiedmann is encouraged with the results of this year’s survey.

However, Wiedmann added that this year’s healthy lamb numbers likely won’t be reflected in increased hunting licenses for several years, as the total number of rams, and the current age structure of rams, are still not quite where Game and Fish biologists would like to see them.

“Consequently, we’ll likely have to continue to be conservative with hunting pressure for a few years, but the future certainly looks promising,” Wiedmann said. “Adult mortality was also low last winter, so we expect another good crop of lambs this spring.”

Even with the small population of bighorn sheep, interest in their status remains high. This is verified ever year when thousands of hunters, knowing the odds of drawing a license will likely be more than 2,000 to one, show their support for the sheep program by applying in the lottery.

Though most of us will never be one of the lucky ones, we can all still appreciate the presence of these sheep in our western North Dakota landscape.

Leier is a biologist with the Game and Fish Department. He can be reached by email:

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