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North Dakota Game and Fish Department Photo Bighorn sheep from Alberta run to freedom Feb. 12 after being released into the North Dakota Badlands west of Grassy Butte. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department received 24 bighorns from a site in Alberta, with much of the funding provided by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation. The bighorns are thriving in their new home, biologists said.

ND relocates 24 bighorns from Alberta: Sheep from robust Canadian population will greatly benefit Badlands herd, North Dakota Game and Fish officials say

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ND relocates 24 bighorns from Alberta: Sheep from robust Canadian population will greatly benefit Badlands herd, North Dakota Game and Fish officials say
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

GRASSY BUTTE — North Dakota’s bighorn sheep herd grew by 24 animals this month, with the relocation of two young rams and 22 ewes from the site of a coal mine near Jasper National Park in western Alberta.

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Brett Wiedmann, bighorn sheep biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson said the sheep were captured Feb. 11 and released the next day in the Badlands west of Grassy Butte. It was a marathon effort, Wiedmann said, involving capture experts and wildlife crews from both sides of the border.

The sheep were lured to the capture site with alfalfa, and a drop net then was placed over the animals so they could be herded into a 30-foot trailer for the 900-plus-mile trip to North Dakota, Wiedmann said.

“We had the sheep loaded in 91 minutes, which is really good,” he said. “When the net drops, it’s nonstop work; people were just worn out. We had 99 people working at the capture, and we needed every one of them.”

Wiedmann, who’s been checking on the sheep regularly since their release, said the animals are doing great. All of the sheep were fitted with VHF radio collars to help biologists keep tabs on the animals. Game and Fish released the sheep about seven miles west of the area where 19 sheep from the Missouri River Breaks in north-central Montana were released in 2006, Wiedmann said.

“It’s the absolute best-case scenario,” he said. “Usually, after you release sheep from a trip like this, a lot of sheep take off, and in a couple of cases, we’ve actually had to recapture sheep with helicopters, but these sheep have not moved. They’re all in one group right at the release site so it’s been the best release we’ve ever had — just incredible. They’re gobbling up grass, and they’re pretty content and happy with where they are.

“As far as how the sheep have been doing, it’s 10 out of 10,” Wiedmann said.

Months of planning

This month’s release of the Alberta sheep culminated about 20 months of planning, Wiedmann said, working with both U.S. and Canadian federal officials, state and provincial agencies and private interests, such as the firm that manages wildlife at the mine site.

“There’s a lot of paperwork,” Wiedmann said. “You’ve got to have your paperwork perfect or you don’t get across the border.”

The sheep North Dakota received are part of a robust population that lives on an active coal mine, where there’s no hunting or public access. The company that manages the mine reclaims the land after mining the coal, Wiedmann said, in the process building habitat that has proven to be perfect for bighorn sheep.

“They do really well, and the population has grown to over 1,000 animals,” he said, adding the Canadian officials like to relocate some of the sheep every year. Two years ago, Nebraska got 40 of the Alberta sheep, he said, and Nevada got 25 last year.

“We weighed all of the sheep, and they’re just huge,” Wiedmann said. “Four of the ewes weighed over 180 pounds, which is just incredibly large, which is why we were so excited to get these sheep.

“They will handle our cold winters like nothing.”

On the grow

With the relocation, Wiedmann said, North Dakota’s bighorn population now stands at more than 350, and 19 of the Alberta ewes should be pregnant, further expanding the herd.

“In May, we should have 19 lambs hitting the ground,” he said. “The next big thing will be to see how they do on lambing. Where winters have decimated deer, our sheep have been doing just fine and increasing all those years. If they do as well as the Montana sheep, it will be great.”

Funding for the relocation came from the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, Wiedmann said, and a hunter who in 2012 purchased the North Dakota sheep tag the foundation sells by auction every year donated use of a 30-foot trailer to transport all of the sheep in one load. Wiedmann said he still was tallying the receipts from the relocation and didn’t have an estimate of the cost.

The addition of these animals to the landscape represents an investment in a resource everyone can enjoy.

“We’re obviously very appreciative of everyone in Alberta,” Wiedmann said. “It’s a tremendous resource so we’re just thrilled to introduce these sheep to the Badlands of North Dakota.

“The ultimate goal is to increase our population and in the long run, provide more hunting opportunities.”

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Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken is editor of the Herald's Northland Outdoors section and also works as a copy editor and page designer. Dokken joined the Herald company in November 1985 as a copy editor for Agweek magazine and joined the Herald staff in 1989. He worked as a copy editor in the features and news departments before becoming outdoors editor in 1998. He also writes a blog called Compass Points. A Roseau, Minn., native, Dokken is a graduate of Bemidji State University. 
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