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Wintery worry

Courtesy Game and Fish Dept. Big horn sheep, while forgotten by many in favor of other more commonly hunted species, have been affected this winter as well. Six of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department's radio-collared big horns have died as a result of the severe winter weather.

As a game species, North Dakota's big horn sheep are often over looked when the public considers the impact of adverse weather on its population.

Big horn tags aren't nearly as readily available as deer and pronghorn tags as they sit as one of the state's "once-in-a-lifetime" licenses and many hunters never get a chance to see one in the state, let alone hunt one.

Brett Wiedmann, big game biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson said the average person probably does forget the big horn during winters like this, but that doesn't mean there isn't an impact.

"We don't really think much about big horns during winters because they're usually so resilient when it comes to hard winters, the mortality is usually pretty insignificant," Wiedmann said. "We were very concerned about a month ago."

That's when Wiedmann, on a routine telemetry flight, located six radio-collared big horns that had died. All six appeared to have been victims of the severe winter weather.

"I was real concerned at that point," Wiedmann said. "Probably only a bison can withstand harsh winters more than a big horn can. They're a real tough animal. They'll live in cold, brutal climates. In other words when we start seeing sheep dying from winter-kill that tells you it's a bad winter."

But it's not all bad news in terms of the big horn sheep population. Last year set a record for lambs in the herd at 61 and from surveys Wiedmann has conducted the lamb retention rate has been promising.

The 2008 population count sat at about 350 sheep, Wiedmann said, adding the Game and Fish's population goal is 300.

Wiedmann said it's especially good considering old rams and young sheep are usually the first ones claimed by harsh winters.

"From what I've been seeing lamb numbers look pretty good," Wiedmann said. "That's encouraging because that's indicative of the whole population.

Wiedmann said he doesn't expect to set another lambing record this spring due to the harsh winter. Pregnant ewes will struggle to get through the winter, let alone support a life growing inside them.

"My hunch is that it is going to be down because these ewes have had such a tough winter," Wiedmann said.

The NDGF lowered the number of available license from 6 to 5 this year. Big horn sheep, elk and moose form the trinity of "once-in-a-lifetime" licenses and the application deadline for each is March 18.

A North Dakota resident is allowed to hold one tag for each of the three species in their lifetime.

Wiedmann said the winter has been tough but it hasn't spelled disaster and hunters will definitely have more opportunities to hunt big horns in the future.

"We definitely had some winter mortality of big horn sheep, but nothing catastrophic," Wiedmann said.

Interested parties can apply by visiting the Game and Fish Web site or by picking up an application where licenses are sold.