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NORTH DAKOTA OUTDOORS/ DOUG LEIER: Uncertainty continues to surround North Dakota's bighorn sheep population

North Dakota doesn't have many bighorn sheep, but vast appreciation and genuine curiosity from hunters and nonhunters alike more than compensates for lack of population.

North Dakota doesn't have many bighorn sheep, but vast appreciation and genuine curiosity from hunters and nonhunters alike more than compensates for lack of population.

As evidence of that, in March 2018, a record 14,617 prospective hunters submitted an application for a North Dakota bighorn sheep license. With two lottery licenses eventually made available, that equates to odds of more than 7,000 to 1 for drawing a license.

For those who may not realize, the bighorn sheep fills a niche as the only kind of wild sheep in the state. North Dakota had native bighorn sheep, but they were extirpated or gone from the state in the early 1900s. The state did not have any wild sheep from that time until the mid-1950s, when bighorns from British Columbia were transplanted here.

Managing bighorn sheep in North Dakota has been a challenge, at times, particularly in recent years, when a disease called bacterial pneumonia began making its way through the state's sheep population. While the sheep population was not necessarily decimated, it did experience losses since the disease first was discovered in 2014.

The latest numbers, compiled during the recent summer survey in July and August, are encouraging. While biologists counted 77 rams during the summer survey, 12 fewer than 2017 and 27 fewer than 2016, there was some better news in the ewe and lamb counts, according to North Dakota Game and Fish Department big game biologist Brett Wiedmann.

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"The good news is we counted 47 lambs during the summer portion of the survey; that is a pretty high count," Wiedmann said. "The caveat is that about more than half of them were coughing, showing signs of pneumonia. So what we do is we will go out in March and recount those lambs to determine how many will be recruited into the population and survive their first winter."

Wiedmann is cautious, however, as 2017 had the second-lowest lamb recruitment on record, with only four yearling rams observed during the summer survey a year ago. "Encouragingly, no adult animals within the herds that were exposed to disease in 2014 showed clinical signs of pneumonia, and the summer lamb count in those herds improved," Wiedmann said.

The next few years will be important in determining if the state's sheep population continues to show signs of recovering from the disease outbreak, or if the disease is likely to persist and cause a long-term population decline.

For 2018, Game and Fish issued one lottery license each for sheep units B3 and B4.

In addition, one license, as authorized under North Dakota Century Code, was auctioned this past spring by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, from which all proceeds are used to enhance bighorn sheep management in North Dakota.

Similar to last year, Game and Fish announced in February that the status of the bighorn sheep hunting season would be determined after completion of the summer population survey. Prospective hunters were required to apply for a bighorn license in March.

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