GRAND FORKS — The North Dakota Game and Fish Department is delaying plans to remove a struggling bighorn sheep herd in the southern Badlands and replace it with healthier sheep from Montana.

The delay is necessary to further evaluate the potential impact of domestic sheep herds near likely release sites, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck.

The proximity of domestic sheep is a concern because of the potential for disease, Williams said. Some of those domestic sheep are “a little closer to the potential release sites than what we would like,” he said.

In 2014, pneumonia killed some 25 bighorn sheep in the northern Badlands.

“Basically it just comes down to we don’t feel comfortable right now,” Williams said “We don't think it would be a responsible decision on our part to bring healthy sheep into areas (and potentially) mingle in with those domestics and bring disease back into that population.”

Jeb Williams, wildlife chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Jeb Williams, wildlife chief, North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

The Game and Fish Department presented the plan to bring in sheep from the Missouri River Breaks of central Montana during last fall’s round of statewide advisory board meetings. As part of the plan, Game and Fish would have increased bighorn licenses and offered ewe tags to remove the fledgling herd of about 20 sheep in Unit B1, which is south of Interstate 94, and eventually replace it with sheep from Montana.

Historically, sheep from the Missouri Breaks have done better in North Dakota than sheep imported from other areas. According to a Herald story that ran in December, the southern Badlands herd descends from sheep that were imported from British Columbia.

“We were moving ahead with it, and one of the things we needed to do is make sure we did a pretty extensive evaluation of the area looking at potential hurdles,” Williams said this week. “Obviously, domestic sheep and goats on the landscape is something we always look at, and at this point in time, the comfort level just isn’t there as far as the close proximity to the release sites that we identified.”

There’s no timetable for moving forward, Williams said, but the department will evaluate options such as different release sites.

“I’m not saying the project is dead by any means, but it’s not going to happen next winter, put it that way,” Williams said.

Game and Fish last year offered four ram tags — three in Unit B1 and a portion of B3 and one license that was valid for units B3 and B4 in the northern Badlands. A total of 15,334 hunters applied for the four tags. A fifth tag fetched $69,000 plus an additional $2,415 in fees and taxes at an auction that the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation held in March 2019. Proceeds from the auction, which is authorized by state law, go toward enhancing bighorn sheep management in North Dakota. All five hunters shot rams.

Game and Fish will determine the status of this year’s bighorn season Sept. 1 after completing summer population surveys. Although the season is tentative, applicants must apply for a license by Wednesday March 25, which also is the deadline for elk and moose season applications. If the bighorn season proceeds, Game and Fish will contact successful applicants to select a hunting unit after license numbers are determined and the lottery is held.

Williams touched on a number of North Dakota wildlife-related topics during a recent phone interview. Here are some highlights.

Elk, moose update

Elk licenses are up in North Dakota, and moose licenses are down only five from last year, a trend that reflects continued strong populations of the two species.

As with bighorn sheep, the deadline to apply for the once-in-a-lifetime licenses is Wednesday, March 25.

Game and Fish is offering 523 elk licenses, an increase of 45 from last year, and 474 moose licenses, compared with 479 licenses last year.

“We’re dealing with a growing population of elk in the western part of the state, which is a good thing,” Williams said. “We have a lot of people interested in that opportunity, and so we’re pretty excited about that, giving more opportunities out there.”

Moose hunters in 2019 shot 389 moose — 154 bulls and 235 cows or calves — for a success rate of 87%. Hunters shot 279 elk — 155 bulls and 124 cows or calves — for a success rate of 62%, Game and Fish Department statistics show.

“One of the challenges with a growing elk population in areas is also going to mean some growing challenges with landowner concerns,” Williams said. “We’re dealing with that, too, so we’re trying to balance that out as best as we can, knowing it is not a perfect formula.

“(We’re) trying to do some things that still provide good hunter opportunities while also addressing some landowner concerns, where maybe they feel like there might be too many elk and providing different seasonal structural opportunities for them to get some additional harvest in their areas.”

The same holds true for moose in north-central and northwest North Dakota, Williams said. There were signs that moose numbers maybe are declining in a few units where success rates fell slightly, he said, but last fall’s extreme wet conditions and abundant standing crops may have affected that, as well.

Because of that, the department chose to hold steady on moose licenses, Williams said.

“It’s really tough to make that decision based solely on lower success rates thinking, ‘Boy, maybe we finally caught up with these moose (numbers),’” Williams said. “But it was just such a crazy fall with some crazy things happening, so that probably played a pretty big role in it, too. So we’re going to do the same thing, same number of licenses in those areas, and hopefully have a little more cooperative fall weather.”

Moose season in units M1C and M4, which includes the Turtle Mountains and Pembina Hills, will remain closed because of a continued downtrend in moose numbers.

Tracking populations

Unlike Minnesota, which conducts aerial surveys to estimate elk and moose numbers, North Dakota uses an index-based approach to tally population trends and the resulting number of licenses it offers to hunters.

It’s more about trends, in other words, than specific numbers.

This year, lack of snow in western North Dakota hampered efforts to survey elk from the air, Williams said. Without snow, the animals blend in with their surroundings.

“With moose and elk, we could probably get quite a bit closer in accuracy and total number than we would with deer. But it’s still one of those things we don’t manage individually, we manage as a population,” Williams said. “In the big scheme of things, ultimately, that total number doesn't really matter that much. I know there’s a lot of people that would like that, and in some instances we would, too. We’re still managing (elk and moose) for populations and looking at those trends as far as what’s going on and what our goal is, as far as increasing or decreasing” hunting licenses and overall numbers.

Lack of snow across much of the state, especially from Bismarck west, hampered winter aerial deer surveys, as well, Williams said.

The heaviest snowfall occurred in the James River Valley in the southeast part of the state, and portions of northeast North Dakota had snow, as well, especially early in the winter.

“We were able to fly some surveys,” Williams said. “I haven’t gotten the total list of areas. … We were able to conduct some, but definitely not a good chunk of the state like we have been here these last couple of years.”

Winter aerial surveys are one of the tools Game and Fish uses to set license numbers for the fall deer season, but at the same time, not having enough snow to fly the surveys means deer likely are doing just fine on the landscape, as well, Williams said.

“As much as we like data and collecting data, I always say that’s a piece of data that probably helps us more by not getting, simply because it means we’re going through a pretty nice winter weather period, and that’s going to mean pretty good things for wildlife in general,” he said.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.