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Bighorns released on Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota in 'nice homecoming'

Bighorns released on Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota in 'nice homecoming'

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Thirty bighorn sheep have been released on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.

Their release is the result of a new agreement between the state of North Dakota and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation that could one day produce a hunting season on the reservation for rams, dependent on how they adapt to their new environment.

The bighorns come from the Rocky Boy's Reservation in Montana. The Kuiu company handled the bighorns' capture via helicopter and bore the related costs.

The bighorns were brought to North Dakota in stock trailers and released on Tuesday. MHA Tribal Councilman Cory Spotted Bear, who represents the Twin Buttes segment, said 13 ewes and three rams were released near Mandaree, while 12 ewes and two rams were released near Twin Buttes.

North Dakota's Game and Fish Department and the tribe assisted in bringing the sheep to North Dakota. The bighorns have been disease-tested and are GPS-collared for tracking purposes.

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Gov. Doug Burgum announced the bighorns' release in his State of the State address on Wednesday in Grand Forks, calling the event an "exciting day for North Dakota."

"Way to go, Game and Fish. Way to go, MHA," the governor said.

Game and Fish Wildlife Division Chief Jeb Williams said the transport and release went well and the bighorns seem in "good, healthy condition."

"We're excited about the opportunity and excited about working with the tribe to get sheep reestablished in that area," Williams said.

Costs to Game and Fish for the project were minor, being mainly time and travel, he said.

The tribe had "minimal" costs but did commit up to about $140,000 for expenses of the project, according to Spotted Bear. The tribe contributed to transport costs and also paid for the GPS collars, he said.

Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Director Toni Smith said she appreciates the collaboration in the project involving the state, Kuiu and the tribes.

"It really was remarkable just to have those different agencies come together just for a conservation project," Smith said.

Spotted Bear said the bighorns' release was "a nice homecoming" in restoring an animal that was historically native to the landscape about 150 years ago. 

"It was a wonderful opportunity to restore something that was natural to the area," Spotted Bear said. He said he "had the honor" of opening the trailer gate to release the sheep.

The only other bighorns in North Dakota are about 330 animals throughout the state's rugged, western Badlands, mostly north of Interstate 94.

The state allocated five bighorn licenses for its 2019 season, four of them awarded in a lottery, one via auction.

Williams said all five hunters were successful. More than 15,000 people applied for the 2019 license lottery.

Since 2014, North Dakota's bighorns have endured an outbreak of bacterial pneumonia which resulted in about a 30% mortality rate.

Williams said the herds have rebounded some, but the disease can persist within a population in individual animals for several years.

Spotted Bear said "there's no guarantee" the reservation sheep won't migrate or encounter disease, but he hopes they "flourish."

More bighorns could potentially come from the Montana reservation in two years, he said.

"It's a special day for the tribe and the state of North Dakota," Spotted Bear said.

Reach Jack Dura at 701-250-8225 or jack.dura@bismarcktribune.com.

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