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Doug Leier, Published April 16 2013

Leier: Interest in bighorn sheep remains high

Fargo - It’s a pretty consistent fact of life where the more we have, the less we appreciate and conversely what we’re lacking, we tend to hold in a little higher regard. The whooping crane population is a pretty good example with a number of a few hundred. But it’s not just an endangered species, the phenomena crosses over.

In fact even the weather in the Midwest is proof, as last year with spring arriving in late March and early April across most of North Dakota, few could argue about too short of a summer in 2012. This year, with winter dragging on, we appreciate any above average warmth and temperature.

The same holds for wildlife as well. The less we have, the more we appreciate. Think of game species like sage and ruffed grouse or even pronghorn and mule deer. Not to mention moose and elk. As a lifelong North Dakota resident, it was nice to hear the annual bighorn sheep survey revealed around 300 bighorn sheep in western North Dakota. For some such a small number may seem inconsequential, but in terms of our North Dakota pride in wildlife diversity, it’s a sort of conservation badge of honor.

A closer look at the numbers and the 2012 count was second highest on record and grew 5 percent above last year’s survey. In total, biologists counted 87 rams, 156 ewes and a record 54 lambs. Big game biologist Brett Wiedmann said the northern badlands population was the highest on record, but the southern badlands herds declined slightly.

“Although adult rams and ewes were virtually unchanged from 2011, we were very pleased to see a record number of lambs recruited into the population, as well as a record recruitment rate of 38 percent,” Wiedmann said. “Nearly all of the lambs we counted during last summer’s survey survived the winter.”

Game and Fish Department biologists count and classify all bighorn sheep in late summer and then recount lambs the following March to determine recruitment.

A bumper crop of lambs is indicative of a healthy population, so Wiedmann is encouraged with the results of this year’s survey. However, Wiedmann added that this year’s healthy lamb numbers likely won’t be reflected in increased hunting licenses for several years, as the total number of rams remains much lower than it was in 2008, and the current age structure of rams is also much younger than what Game and Fish biologists would like to see.

“Consequently, we’ll likely have to continue to be conservative with hunting pressure for a few years, but the future certainly looks promising,” Wiedmann said. “Adult mortality was also low last winter, so we expect another good crop of lambs to begin hitting the ground within a couple of weeks.”

Honestly when you consider the array of unique wildlife species found in North Dakota most hunters fully embrace the reality of the slim odds of drawing a tag for a bighorn sheep or elk or moose for that matter-this year Game and Fish has issued four bighorn sheep licenses for 2013, the same as 2012. What also hasn’t changed is even with the small population the interest in their population status remains high.

Leier, a biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in West Fargo, can be reached at dleier@nd.gov

Leier’s blog can be found online

at www.areavoices.com