Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is proposing an unusual plan to eliminate a bighorn sheep herd in order to restore it. But some question if it’s a good use of FWP’s time and money.
At Thursday’s FWP Commission meeting, Big Game Chief John Vore proposed a series of actions that would set the stage for killing off the bighorn sheep herd in the Tendoy Mountains south of Dillon along the Montana-Idaho border.
FWP transplanted wild sheep into the Tendoy Mountains in 1985, where they thrived until 1993 when the herd numbered about 200. That’s when the first of two die-offs occurred, and the herd is now limping along with about 50 sheep.
Vore said FWP tried to augment the herd but it hasn’t helped.
FWP still sells one bighorn sheep tag for the area, but Vore wants to eliminate that while his department considers a plan to kill off the herd.
“We would set an aggressive season for fall 2015 if we decided to depopulate, and we don’t want a person who drew a tag to be in competition with other hunters trying to kill every sheep on the landscape there,” Vore said.
A related proposal would redraw the boundary to shrink the hunting district in the Tendoy Mountains so hunters wouldn’t kill sheep from a nearby herd that migrates between Idaho and Montana along the Continental Divide.
The commission approved those proposals but had more questions with a third proposal to send some wild sheep from the Tendoy Mountains to out-of-state research facilities.
During public comment, Gallatin Wildlife Association President Glenn Hockett suggested that the wild sheep should be sent away only if FWP goes forward with the depopulation.
Vore said no facilities were currently interested but wanted the approval in case someone expressed interest in the future.
At a previous meeting, Vore proposed sending Missouri Breaks sheep out of state, but the commission denied the proposal, telling Vore to find places in state to put the sheep.
FWP tends to favor sending wildlife out of state because the receiving state pays for the transplant operation.
Commission Chair Dan Vermillion asked why the Tendoy sheep couldn’t be tested for disease and moved elsewhere.
Vore said that was a possibility that could be included in the environmental assessment of the plan to eliminate the current Tendoy herd and transplant other animals there to start over.
Under the plan, FWP would open the Tendoy hunting district to aggressive hunting to eliminate all the animals, which could take a couple of years, Vore said. FWP may have to send wardens in to eliminate any stragglers.
Some biologists hypothesize that the herd is faltering because of disease, although predation, competition and poor habitat can play a part.
Of 12 sheep sampled in 2012 and 2013, only one lamb was found to carry the Mycoplasma bacteria that cause the pneumonia believed to have resulted in past die-offs.
Retired biologist Jim Bailey said almost 100 lambs have survived since the die-offs in the mid-1990s and they may now have disease resistance that would be lost if they are killed.
If the sheep do go to a research facility, FWP should be able to direct what research is done, such as looking into resistance, Bailey said.
Once the old herd is eliminated, new sheep would be brought into the Tendoy Mountains. But they might not do any better because there are domestic sheep in the area that carry the bacteria.
“If there were not wild sheep already there, we wouldn’t recommend moving any there,” Vore said.
The 2012 wild sheep management plan set a goal of establishing five new herds by 2022. FWP recently moved wild sheep into a new area in the Madison Range, which would be the first new herd if the transplant is successful. But the agency has struggled to find new places.
This plan would be a reintroduction so it wouldn’t count toward those five herds, and some questioned why FWP was putting so much effort into restarting a herd that may not be held back by an internal reservoir of disease.
“This EA needs to be extremely thorough. I commend the department for trying something pioneering, but we’re putting in an awful lot of energy here for a herd that already exists,” said Montana Wildlife Federation spokesman Nick Gevock.
Vore said the EA should be available in April for public comment so that hunting licenses could be issued starting in July.