BILLINGS – Repeatedly stifled in efforts to transplant bighorn sheep in new locations in Montana over the past few years, the state’s wildlife commission chairman said it may be time to rethink the state’s conservation strategy for the popular big game species.
“I guess what I’m hearing is we don’t have any place in Montana to place sheep,” said Dan Vermillion, Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman, at the group’s last meeting.
“Not with the criteria we’ve established,” said John Vore, FWP’s game management bureau chief. “Much of our historic sheep habitat didn’t have domestic sheep.”
Vore said recently that he’s preparing a presentation for the commission that outlines the criteria for where sheep can be established and places that the department has already looked at that don’t meet those guidelines.
“We keep looking at areas, and we’ve looked at many, many,” he said.
Under the state’s conservation plan – adopted in 2010 – FWP set a goal of creating five new huntable populations of bighorn sheep in the state by 2022. Yet time and again the department’s attempts to transplant wild sheep have been thwarted.
In 2013 a plan to transplant sheep to public land near Lewis and Clark Caverns was canceled after a Cardwell legislator and landowner said he was unaware of the proposal and introduced a bill to restrict future transplants. The bill died in committee and the transplant proposal was killed.
Later that year a proposal to put bighorns in the Bridger Mountains was delayed because of the nearby presence of domestic sheep, which can transmit certain bacteria to bighorn sheep that are lethal.
Then this year a transplant in the Madison Mountains was delayed to 2015 after an outbreak of pneumonia in the parent herd was detected.
Recently, a frustrated commission voted against the department’s proposal to transplant sheep to South Dakota as a way to thin certain herds and thereby lessen the chance of disease being spread by crowding, the Billings Gazette reported.
Increasing hunting permits to thin a herd is not as surgical, because the herds are sometimes inaccessible to hunters, Vore told the commission. Moving sheep from one herd to another is also dangerous since infections could be spread, Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management section chief, told the commission.
“It would be well advised for us to revisit the plan” at some point, Vore told the commissioners.
One of the authors of the state’s bighorn sheep plan disagrees that the plan is to blame. Now-retired FWP biologist Tom Carlsen, who sits on the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation board, said the plan’s scientific criteria give bighorn transplants “the best chance to be successful.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t think they’ve exhausted all of the (habitat) possibilities,” he said, pointing to the Tobacco Root and Snowy mountains as options.
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