Protecting bighorns: Game and Fish moving sheep further into TRNP, away from Highway 85
GRAND FORKS -- The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently deployed a helicopter crew to capture and relocate 12 bighorn sheep in an effort to reduce road-kill incidents along a heavily traveled stretch of U.S. Highway 85 north of the Little Missouri River near the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
The highway in the heart of western North Dakota's Oil Patch has become one of the busiest roads in the state since the start of the oil boom.
According to Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the helicopter crew already was in western North Dakota capturing mule deer for a study on the impact of oil development on the deer. But after a half-dozen incidents of bighorn sheep, including three mature rams, being killed along Highway 85 since 2010, the decision was made to capture and move the sheep to a safer location.
"We can't do anything about the traffic on Highway 85. It just is -- and it isn't going to change anytime soon," Kreil said. "These sheep are very valuable animals to the public so the only other option was to prevent losses due to vehicle collisions and we did."
According to Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, the bighorns that were moved and the animals hit by vehicles originated from a release of 19 sheep that came from the "Missouri Breaks" in central Montana in 2006.
The herd grew to about 43 by 2009, which coincided with the uptick in traffic on Highway 85.
After the first road-kill incidents, Wiedmann said the department in 2010 relocated 14 of the bighorns to an area near Magpie Creek about 25 miles to the southwest. But when the road-kill incidents continued, Wiedmann said, the decision was made to move the remaining sheep to the Magpie Creek area.
He said the department has documented three adult rams and three females as road-kill casualties since 2010.
"They were down to about 15 animals, and my suspicions were more were being hit than what we were finding," Wiedmann said. "They cross that highway pretty frequently, and it was just a matter of time before they all were going to be hit."
It's not known, he said, what kinds of vehicles killed the sheep.
"We usually find them after the fact," he said. "There's a lot of traffic, and it's hard to say exactly what is hitting them. I found two females hit at the same time, and they went about 100 yards from where they were struck," which suggests they were hit by semis.
Wiedmann said the helicopter crew captured the sheep -- one ram, seven ewes and four lambs -- the morning of Feb. 22, and they were trailered to the release site and set free before noon the same day.
Two young rams were left behind, Wiedmann said, but with no females left in the area, he's hoping they join a herd of about 30 sheep that live in the west side of the park.
"It's beautiful habitat, and they're pretty much homebodies and stay on the west side of the park," Wiedmann said. "We used to have radio-collars on some of the sheep, and they wouldn't even come near Highway 85."
Wiedmann said Game and Fish also will continue to monitor another herd of about 30 sheep on the south side of the Little Missouri River.
"They've been there for decades and don't seem to cross the highway with near the frequency as those north of the Little Missouri River," he said.
Wiedmann said the eight adult bighorns were fitted with radio-collars, and two of the sheep already have joined the existing Magpie Creek herd, which is thriving and has grown to more than 30 animals.
"We just felt this was the best course of action," Wiedmann said. "They're such high-quality sheep; we just didn't want to lose these animals to road kill."
Funding the transfer
Kreil, the wildlife chief, said the department used funds from its bighorn sheep donation account to pay for the relocation, which cost about $8,000 plus another $1,000 for the radio-collars. The Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation auctions a North Dakota bighorn license every year, and last year's license sold for $42,000.
All of the auction proceeds, plus an additional $10,000 donated by the Sheep Foundation, are used to enhance bighorn sheep management in North Dakota.
Game and Fish issued three bighorn sheep licenses by lottery last year, and all three hunters were successful. He said the department had hoped to offer six or seven licenses this year but decided to keep the number at four -- three by lottery and one by auction -- because of the road-kill incidents.
Game and Fish now is taking applications for this year's elk, moose and bighorn sheep lotteries, and the deadline to apply is March 27, Kreil said.
Kreil said the area near the park's North Unit has had a bighorn sheep herd for the past 25 to 30 years, and the department several times in the past has relocated animals to supplement sheep herds in other parts of the Badlands.
"We move sheep every year from one place to another," Kreil said. "Sometimes, we move them to supplement other herds. Sometimes, we move them because we're concerned about disease problems.
"This is the first time we've done it to try to save animals" from being hit by vehicles.
A Game and Fish Department survey last July and August estimated the northern Badlands herd at a record 251 bighorn sheep -- 89 rams, 155 ewes and 55 lambs -- up 18 from 2011, and 48 in the southern Badlands a decrease of nine from the previous year.
The survey does not include the 30 bighorns sheep that inhabit the North Unit of the park, department officials said.