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Brad Dokken, Forum News Service, Published March 11 2013

Facing increased oil traffic, ND relocates herd of bighorn sheep by helicopter

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Game and Fish Department recently deployed a helicopter crew to capture and relocate 12 bighorn sheep in an effort to reduce road-kill incidents along a heavily traveled stretch of U.S. Highway 85 north of the Little Missouri River near the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The highway in the heart of western North Dakota’s Oil Patch has become one of the busiest roads in the state since the start of the oil boom.

According to Randy Kreil, wildlife division chief for Game and Fish in Bismarck, the helicopter crew already was in western North Dakota capturing mule deer for a study on the impact of oil development.

But after a half-dozen incidents of bighorn sheep, including three mature rams, being killed along Highway 85 since 2010, the decision was made to capture and move the sheep to a safer location.

“We can’t do anything about the traffic on Highway 85. It just is – and it isn’t going to change anytime soon,” Kreil said. “These sheep are very valuable animals to the public so the only other option was to prevent losses due to vehicle collisions and we did.”

According to Brett Wiedmann, a big game biologist for the Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, the bighorns that were moved and the animals hit by vehicles originated from a release of 19 sheep that came from the “Missouri Breaks” in central Montana in 2006.

The herd grew to about 43 by 2009, which coincided with the uptick in traffic on Highway 85.

After the first road-kill incidents, Wiedmann said the department in 2010 relocated 14 of the bighorns to an area near Magpie Creek about 25 miles to the southwest. But when the road-kill incidents continued, Wiedmann said, the decision was made to move the remaining sheep to the Magpie Creek area.

He said the department has documented three adult rams and three females as road-kill casualties since 2010.

“They were down to about 15 animals, and my suspicions were more were being hit than what we were finding,” Wiedmann said. “They cross that highway pretty frequently, and it was just a matter of time before they all were going to be hit.”

It’s not known, he said, what kinds of vehicles killed the sheep.

“We usually find them after the fact,” he said. “I found two females hit at the same time, and they went about 100 yards from where they were struck,” which suggests they were hit by semis.

Wiedmann said the helicopter crew captured the sheep – one ram, seven ewes and four lambs – the morning of Feb. 22, and they were trailered to the release site and set free before noon the same day.

Two young rams were left behind, Wiedmann said, but with no females left in the area, he’s hoping they join a herd of about 30 that live in the west side of the park.

“It’s beautiful habitat, and they’re pretty much homebodies and stay on the west side of the park,” Wiedmann said.