BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota wildlife officials are reducing the number of bighorn sheep hunting licenses available this year as they continue to see the effects of disease on the western herd.
The Game and Fish Department is making five of the once-in-a-lifetime licenses available, three fewer than last year. The decision came after the agency’s annual summer survey found 83 rams in the western Badlands, 21 fewer than in 2016.
The 20 percent decline in rams — which hunters seek for their trophy horns — is tied to an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia that surfaced in 2014 and killed dozens of sheep, Big Game Management Biologist Brett Wiedmann said.
North Dakota canceled its fall bighorn hunting season in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades. Game and Fish reinstated hunting last year after the deaths tapered off, and no adult bighorns within the herds that were exposed to disease three years ago showed clinical signs of pneumonia this summer.
However, poor lamb survival is typical in sheep populations that have been exposed to pneumonia, and the number of lambs counted last spring was the lowest in recorded history.
“Very few yearling rams were observed” this summer, Wiedmann said.
Future lamb crops could be critical to the continuation of hunting.
“It’s kind of a year-by-year thing,” Wiedmann said. “As it stands now I foresee us having a hunting season next year. If we get to the point where (lamb) recruitment doesn’t keep up with (hunter) harvest, then we’ll have to take another look.”
The fact that herds affected by disease in 2014 showed better lamb production this year provides some optimism, Big Game Management Supervisor Bruce Stillings said.
Another positive is that drought this summer isn’t having any impact on the herd because bighorns thrive in dry climates, according to Wiedmann.
Bighorn hunting is big in North Dakota. More than 13,200 hunters have applied this year for licenses that are distributed through a lottery drawing in September, according to Game and Fish Licensing Manager Randy Meissner.
Each year, the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation auctions one North Dakota license to raise money for sheep management. This year’s winning bid was $104,000.
The bighorn hunting season opens Nov. 3 and closes Dec. 31.
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