North Dakota is issuing more bighorn sheep licenses this year as a disease outbreak wanes in the Badlands population, though hunters lucky enough to get one might have a smaller chance of bagging a big trophy animal than their counterparts will a few years down the road.
A summer survey conducted by the state Game and Fish Department indicated a 10% decline in ram numbers from last year, and a population dominated by young rams.
State Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams calls it “a double-edged sword” -- there’s a strong population of young rams, but the deadly bacterial pneumonia outbreak first detected in 2014 has taken a toll on mature rams -- the ones with the trophy horns.
“It’s like fishing,” he said. “You might catch 70 to 80 but they’re all little. But that bodes well for future years.”
Game and Fish this year is issuing five of the once-in-a-lifetime bighorn licenses, up from three last year. Four have been doled out through a license lottery. One license each year is auctioned off by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation to raise money for sheep management. This year’s auction raised about $69,000, down from $87,000 last year, according to Williams.
“Overall, if you take an average, it’s right in the ballpark,” he said.
There are bighorn herds in both the southern and northern portions of the Badlands. There are more than 300 bighorns north of Interstate 94 but only 20 south of it. The southern population "has not been doing well," Williams said.
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Three lottery licenses have been issued this year for southern hunting units and one for the north. The auctioned license is good for any open unit.
"Our objective this hunting season is to reduce the number of rams in the southern badlands, to lessen the risk of transmitting disease to the northern population," said Brett Wiedmann, big game management biologist in Dickinson for Game and Fish.
The pneumonia outbreak killed about three dozen sheep in 2014, leading Game and Fish to cancel the late-fall bighorn hunting season in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades. The agency issued eight licenses the following year after the deaths tapered off. In 2016, the disease spread to three previously unaffected herds, and Game and Fish reduced the number of licenses to five. Last year, the number was dropped to three.
Bighorns are still occasionally dying in North Dakota from the disease, which can take 15 years or longer to work its way out of a herd, according to Williams.
“I think we’re ahead of it (that timeline), based on some of our surveys,” he said. “A lot of research shows pneumonia outbreaks, initially the loss can be 30-80% of the herd. We were fortunate -- we were closer to 20-25%.”
Bighorn hunting is popular in North Dakota. A record 15,518 hunters applied for a license this year -- essentially 3,000 applicants for every available license. The application period was held before the summer survey, and the license lottery has already been held.
The bighorn season opens Nov. 1 and runs through the end of the year.