Montana isn’t taking any chances with the health and wellbeing of its bighorn sheep herds. After attempting to combat disease outbreaks by supplementing healthy sheep from afar, the state is now working to completely eliminate its Tendoy Mountains herd and start over from scratch.
The Tendoy Mountains herd was reintroduced in 1985 with 39 sheep released. Another 14 were released the following year, and by 1987 the herd had grown to 98 animals. Hunting began in 1988 with three ram licenses issued.
The herd totalled 108 sheep by 1991, with hunting pressure increased in 1993 to curb population growth. However, pneumonia ran through the herd that year, affecting all age classes. The ’93 herd, estimated at 154 animals or more with at least 27 lambs, was reduced to a paltry 28 sheep in total.
Hunting was discontinued for two years, and another 19 sheep were brought in during 1997. Ear tags allowed researchers to track the supplemented sheep; the state knew problems were still present when mortality occurred in the new animals as well. Pneumonia claimed all but 16 of the sheep that same year.
By 2015 almost 100 bighorns had been supplementally introduced into the herd, but according to a FWP study, there were only 19 bighorns observed during flyover surveys. The herd was optimistically estimated at 30 to 40 animals.
The decision was made in the fall of 2015 to eradicate the current sheep herd — termed “depopulation” — and start the reintroduction efforts of 1985 all over again, this time with no sick animals to spread lingering diseases.
Hunters looking for an animal toward their sheep slam were in luck. The state elected to issue 311 sheep licenses for the 2015 hunting season, all either-sex tags. The licenses were sold for the Tendoy area only, with 287 residents and 24 non-residents taking Montana up on its offer.
FWP reported Monday that initial efforts have been successful. There have been 26 sheep taken: 15 ewes, eight rams, and three lambs. Hunters are gladly participating in the research efforts, with 25 of the sheep submitted for lung samples. Lab results are not in as of press time.
If hunters are not able to totally depopulate the herd, Montana will take the remaining sheep and donate the meat to a local food bank.
Air and ground surveys will continue to ensure the herd is truly wiped out. Once that is confirmed, reintroduction efforts may begin as soon as the winter of 2016-17. However, the state will more than likely wait a full year before bringing new bighorns into the mountain range.