North Dakota has its first bighorn sheep entries in the Boone and Crockett awards book after two hunters in November shot rams with horns big enough to qualify.
Dustin Seamands of Bismarck made the most of his once-in-a-lifetime North Dakota sheep tag to shoot a ram that measured 177 ⅛ inches after the mandatory 60-day drying period, making it the new North Dakota record bighorn.
Brian Ham of Alice, N.D., wasn't far behind, shooting a ram that officially measured 176 ⅝ inches after the drying period.
"Both these guys, they put in the work scouting, taking photos of rams, studying rams and being patient, and then it paid off," said Brett Wiedmann, big game management biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Dickinson, N.D. "It's nice to see their persistence was rewarded with two tremendous rams."
Ram horns have to be measured by a certified Boone and Crockett measurer and score at least 175 inches after the drying period to qualify for the club's awards book. North Dakota's previous state record bighorn, taken last year, measured 174 4/8, just shy of Boone and Crockett, Wiedmann said
Based in Missoula, Mont., the Boone and Crockett Club is the official record keeper of trophy big game animals taken with a firearm.
North Dakota's bighorn sheep season opened Nov. 3, and Game and Fish issued five tags-four by lottery and one auctioned by the Wild Sheep Foundation as a fundraiser for bighorn research and management in the state.
Record book sheep
Wiedmann, who holds an orientation session for the hunters before season, said he was sure the ram Seamands shot opening day in Unit B3 northwest of Fairfield, N.D., would top the previous state record when he saw the sheep in the field. After shooting a ram, hunters contact Wiedmann, who then drives out to the Badlands to take a rough measurement of the horns and insert a horn plug certifying the animal was taken legally; he also gathers blood and tissue samples from the rams.
When Ham shot his sheep Nov. 6 in Unit B4 northwest of Grassy Butte, N.D., Wiedmann said the rough score edged the ram Seamands had taken opening day and was on track to be the new state record.
"The first one taken was about 1½ inches smaller than the second (green score), but both of them still looked like they'd be close to making Boone and Crockett minimum," Wiedmann said.
The official Boone and Crockett scores came out this past week, and the measurements flipped in Seamands' favor.
That was a letdown, Ham admits.
"I'm not sure what happened there," he said. "It was a little disappointing after going a couple of months thinking I had the No. 1 sheep. But you know, I'm still proud of the sheep I got."
He plans to get a wall pedestal mount of the trophy ram, he said.
For Seamands, news that his ram was the new state record came as a pleasant surprise and added to the thrill of a hunt he says he'll never forget.
"I just really wanted to be able to make the record book," Seamands said. "(The hunt) was a blast. I drew my elk tag in 2010 for North Dakota, and I've been out to Montana on a cow elk hunt, but this was, by far, the best hunt I've ever had. It was exciting."
Seamands says he's hoping to get a full-body mount of the trophy.
"I think I got the wife convinced," he said with a laugh.
Seamands' ram would have scored even higher, but 3½ inches of its right horn was broken, Wiedmann said. That would have given the ram the 180 minimum score needed to qualify for all-time Boone and Crockett status, a higher distinction.
"Had he not done that, that ram definitely would have been over 180 inches," Wiedmann said. "He was a beautiful, beautiful animal."
The ram was part of the Magpie Creek Herd, the oldest in the state dating back to 1956, and Ham's No. 2 ram was part of the Ice Box Canyon Herd, Wiedmann said. Both rams were about 8½ years old, he said.
Wiedmann, who keeps close tabs on North Dakota's bighorn herd and knows the whereabouts of most of the largest, oldest rams, said the new record sheep spent most of its time in an area that's part of Unit B4 but strayed south into B3 during the rut.
"He went about 15 miles south of where he normally ruts," Wiedmann said. "He was a B4 ram that wandered down into B3 so they were pretty fortunate that happened. These rams do make weird movements like that during the rut. They'll travel 10-15 miles; one year, they're in one drainage, the next year, they're in another, but this ram really made a strange movement."
All five of the hunters with sheep tags harvested their rams, Wiedmann said, including a 16-year-old girl from Arizona whose dad bought the auction tag for $104,000.
The success rate since 1975 is about 98 percent, he said, meaning only a couple of hunters in all those years haven't filled their once-in-a-lifetime tags.
The trophy rams speak to the quality of North Dakota bighorns. The rams are descendants of sheep the North Dakota Game and Fish Department imported from Montana in 2006 and 2007, Wiedmann said.
Montana is known for big sheep, but a 2014 pneumonia outbreak hit the North Dakota herd about the time the imported rams were coming of age, Wiedmann said.
"Montana puts out bighorns over 200 inches and real mega-rams," he said. "But of course, by the time we had some real nice rams to harvest out of that group, that's when the die-off hit so we lost a lot of those Montana rams. But now, we're kind of getting the next wave. We have some real nice up-and-comers."
The pneumonia pathogen that forced Game and Fish to close the season for a year in 2015 still lingers in the herd, but mortalities have declined, Wiedmann said.
"We're starting to get more lambs in some of these herds that were most significantly affected by the die-off, so knock on wood, we're trending in the right direction," he said. "Our adult mortalities have really slowed, and we're starting to get greater lamb survival, as well. It can turn on a dime again, but so far, so good."
As in the years since the pneumonia outbreak, Wiedmann said Game and Fish will wait until September to hold the lottery and set the season, after the annual summer bighorn survey is complete.
"We'll probably keep doing that in perpetuity now," he said. "Last year, even doing that, we had over 13,000 applicants, which shattered the record, so there's tremendous interest in hunting bighorn sheep."
And if what he's seen in the Badlands is any indication, North Dakota's latest bighorn sheep record may not last very long, Wiedmann said.
The record was broken in 2014, there wasn't a season in 2015 because of the pneumonia outbreak, and records were set in 2016 and again in 2017.
"It's been broken three hunting seasons in a row now," Wiedmann said. "I never guarantee it, but I don't think they got the biggest ram-I'll leave it at that. I think there's one out there who's probably bigger than all of these rams."