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The annual spring bighorn sheep survey revealed about 300 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota. (N.D. Game and Fish Department photo)

N.D. bighorn sheep season reflects comeback

North Dakota's bighorn sheep season opener Oct. 28 will come and go with little fanfare, except from eight hunters who are excitedly gearing up for their one and only chance to hunt these special animals in the state.

It's a big deal for biologists at the state Game and Fish Department, too, because at this time last year, the future for bighorn sheep in North Dakota was not clear.

A bacterial pneumonia outbreak within the bighorn population north of Interstate 94, which began in 2014 and continued into 2015, killed a significant number of bighorns and prompted Game and Fish biologists to cancel the season last year, with a fair amount of uncertainty about how long it would take before the season could open again.

"The common theme when you have these pneumonia-related die-offs is that you don't know exactly what is going to happen," Game and Fish big game biologist Brett Wiedmann said in the October issue of North Dakota Outdoors magazine. "Are you going to lose 90 percent of the population? Are you going to lose 50 percent? Are you going to lose 20 percent? You just don't know."

Fortunately, Wiedmann said, the 2015 bighorn counts came in better than expected, which provided some hope for a season in 2016. The key, however, was to have 2016 survey numbers in hand before Game and Fish could make that decision. The challenge was to figure out how to do that, when the moose, elk and sheep seasons are officially established in early March, and the summer survey doesn't conclude until the end of August.

The plan that Game and Fish biologists came up with was to allow prospective hunters to apply as they always had in late March, at the same time as the moose and elk license application period, with the understanding that bighorn license numbers would not be established until early September, after the summer survey was completed.

Even though Game and Fish could not guarantee a bighorn sheep season at all, 10,380 people applied for a bighorn license anyway.

More good news came at the end of the survey, when Game and Fish allocated eight licenses — seven via lottery, and one via auction by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation. This auction license was established about 30 years ago by the state legislature, and all proceeds are used to enhance bighorn sheep management in North Dakota.

The July-August survey showed a minimum of 103 rams in the Badlands, an increase of 18 percent from 2015. Wiedmann said that overall, Game and Fish officials are encouraged by the summer survey. "In fact, the ram count was the highest on record," he added.

Because of the good numbers of mature rams on the landscape, Game and Fish wildlife division chief Jeb Williams said the agency wanted to provide as much hunter opportunity as possible under the current situation. "We feel good that we were able to provide this opportunity, as impacts from the die-off have lessened substantially since 2014, but it is also very unpredictable," Williams said.

While number of male bighorns on the landscape is good, Wiedmann says the pathogens that cause pneumonia are still in the population, so now is not the time to restrict harvest of males. "Use them or lose them," he said. "We have big, healthy rams out there that are in wonderful shape and we don't want them to die of pneumonia."

Another survey in March, when biologists count lambs to determine recruitment or survival over the winter, will provide even more information on how pneumonia is or is not affecting North Dakota's bighorn sheep.

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