For most of us, hunting a Montana bighorn sheep is a long-odds proposition.
For example, this year 20,842 applicants applied by May 1 for the 487 bighorn sheep licenses available in hunting districts around the state. About 60 percent of bighorn sheep hunters harvested an animal in 2004, the most recent year that data is available.
Would-be sheep hunters are optimistic by nature or they wouldn’t apply. Optimism pays off when hunters who do succeed in the drawing are immediately thrown into an extraordinary and demanding hunting experience after their months of preparation and often years, maybe decades, of dreaming.
The good news for 2006 license holders is that Montana's wild sheep populations are generally faring well. That isn't always the case, because bighorn sheep are especially susceptible to disease, habitat fragmentation and predation.
For those lucky bighorn sheep license holders and others just interested in the hunt, here is a quick update on bighorn sheep populations around the state.
Sheep populations are generally thriving in Region 1, with record-high populations in hunting district 124 and near-record populations in hunting district 122.
The Knowles Creek Herd in hunting district 124, managed jointly by FWP and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribe, appeared to have a population of about 500 during this year’s March helicopter census. Biologist Bruce Sterling saw 96 rams, 55 that were adults five and one half years old or older.
Nearby, in hunting district 121, the herd is in the range of 180 to 200 animals, though it experiences a high number of vehicle mortalities along Highway 200 during winter and spring. In nearby hunting district 122, Sterling surveyed 104 bighorn sheep and another 106 bighorn sheep in hunting district 123 in the Bull River drainage.
While the relatively new bighorn sheep herd in the Elkhorn Mountains, hunting district 380, is doing well, populations are declining in the Highlands and Greenhorn mountains, hunting district 340, said FWP biologist Tom Lemke. Hunting is closed in the Spanish Peaks but populations are believed to be increasing to a level that could support some amount of hunting in the near future.
In the unlimited sheep hunting areas of Montana, including hunting districts 300, 303, 500 and 501, populations are relatively small with what FWP biologists characterize as reasonable recruitment of young sheep into the population.
In prime sheep habitat along the Rocky Mountain Front, bighorn populations are at or near all-time highs. The Sun River herd, the source of many of Montana’s transplanted sheep, is especially robust, said FWP biologist Quentin Kujala.
Missouri River Breaks
Biologists counted record-high numbers of bighorn sheep in the western portion of the Missouri River Breaks this summer, with 532 sheep in hunting district 680 on the north side of the Missouri River. Another 365 sheep were observed on the south side of the river. FWP biologist Mark Sullivan noted that 75 rams in hunting district 680 were ¾ curl or larger.
Last year 20 sheep were removed from hunting district 680 to be transplanted to Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains and requests have been received by North Dakota and Nebraska for Breaks bighorns this winter.