Details are a work in progress, but the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is exploring an expanded bighorn sheep season in the southern Badlands to remove a struggling herd south of Interstate 94 and replace it with healthier sheep from the Missouri Breaks region of central Montana.

The plan would utilize hunters to remove the herd of about 20 sheep by offering more licenses and ewe tags that would require hunters to take female sheep in Unit B1 of the southern Badlands, said Jeb Williams, wildlife chief for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck.

“It’s always been a struggling herd. There have been some disease issues, and they just haven’t done that well,” he said. “The reproduction and recruitment is low and inconsistent, and so our thought process is to remove the remaining 20 sheep in that area and bring in healthy sheep from the Breaks of Montana.”

By comparison, the northern Badlands herd has an estimated population of about 300 bighorns and continues to recover from a 2014 pneumonia outbreak, Williams said.

Killing off the southern herd would be necessary to reduce the risk of the imported bighorns contracting pneumonia or other diseases the southern Badlands sheep might carry, Williams said. Game and Fish has a connection with Montana wildlife officials to import sheep from the Missouri Breaks, he said.

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“We can’t bring those sheep in if we have those sheep in the southern Badlands due to the disease issues they’re carriers of at this point,” Williams said. “We need to have that landscape clean of sheep before we bring in healthy sheep.”

Historically, sheep from the Missouri Breaks have done better in North Dakota than sheep imported from other areas, Williams said.

“It’s not terribly far away from North Dakota, and it’s similar habitat conditions,” he said. “They’ve been genetically adapted and built for the Badlands, and they tend to do well here.”

The southern Badlands herd descends from sheep that were imported from British Columbia, Williams said.

Favorable response

Game and Fish staff presented the idea of the expanded sheep hunting opportunity during the department’s fall round of statewide advisory board meetings with hunters and anglers. The response was mostly favorable, Williams said, even though hunters would have to shoot a female sheep if they drew a ewe tag for the once-in-a-lifetime hunt.

“That was something we wanted to visit with the public about, too,” Williams said. “We’ve never done something like this before as far as issuing ewe tags, female tags, and knowing that bighorn sheep opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime, would people be interested in that opportunity? A lot of folks felt there would be good interest out there.

“They understand the rationale, I think, of what the department is looking at, and as always, hunters are very willing to help.”

Game and Fish offered four ram tags by lottery for the 2019 season -- three in Unit B1 and a portion of Unit B3 and one license valid for units B3 and B4 in the northern Badlands -- and 15,334 hunters applied.

As authorized by state law, the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation auctioned an additional tag in March, with proceeds going to enhance bighorn sheep management in North Dakota. That license fetched $69,000, plus an additional $2,415 in fees and taxes, according to the onlinehuntingauctions.com website.

If the department proceeds with the plan, the expanded bighorn opportunity could happen as early as next fall, but numerous details need to be worked out, Williams said. Time is a factor, because the proclamation setting the regulations for bighorn sheep, elk and moose seasons is due in the governor’s office at the end of February, Williams said.

“It doesn’t give us a heck of a lot of time, and so we have some thought process to go through over the next couple of months to think about how to best do this,” he said. “We’re going to continue to explore the options, but the public comment back on that was that people felt pretty comfortable just adding those licenses.”

After the herd is removed, Game and Fish would probably import about 30 to 40 bighorn sheep from Montana, Williams said.

“It’s hard to say, but that’s probably what it would be to start with, and that would be a good start in (the southern Badlands) for sure,” he said. “And then, if things progress and get better, it would potentially be there for a little bit more, too.”

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.