BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota’s Game and Fish Department is resuming bighorn sheep hunting this fall after concluding that a disease that sparked a large die-off in the western badlands herd two years ago has diminished.
Bacterial pneumonia is still present in the herd but there have been only a handful of deaths this summer — nowhere near the three dozen fatalities in 2014, according to State Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams.
“Overall, the population appears to be doing pretty well,” he said. “In certain areas, there was a lack of reproduction, but in other areas there was reproduction. Now the waiting game begins to see if those lambs are actually recruited into the population.”
The hunting season was called off in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades due to the deaths in the 300-strong herd. Many that died were mature rams, which hunters seek because of their trophy horns.
This summer’s survey indicated a good number of mature rams. The number of rams counted was 103, up 18 percent from last year and the highest on record, according to big game biologist Brett Wiedmann.
“We are on the side of recreational (hunting) opportunities while we know we have healthy and mature rams out there,” Williams said.
Eight highly sought-after licenses will be doled out — among the most offered since bighorn hunting started in North Dakota in the early 1980s.
This year, 10,380 prospective hunters applied for a license. Game and Fish will hold a lottery to determine who gets one of seven $30 licenses. One bighorn license is auctioned each year by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation to raise money for sheep management. This year’s auction raised $95,000.
Hunters can receive only one license in their lifetime, even if they fail to bag a ram during that season. The regular season opens Oct. 28 and closes Dec. 31. A bow-only season begins Oct. 21 and also runs through the end of the year.
With disease still present in the herd, Williams cautioned that the future of bighorn hunting is still unpredictable.
“It can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years to work its way out of the herd,” he said.
Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake