By Robert Lucke
Feb. 9th and 11th, 20 bighorn sheep from northern Montana found new homes in the Elk Horn Mountains south of Helena.
The sheep were transplanted by helicopter and horse trailer to their new home, according to Havre Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Al Rosgaard.
"The area sheep were transplanted into has some sheep which had been transplanted there two years ago," said Rosgaard. "This was done to augment them and to build up that population."
Bottom line for folks in this area is that northern Montana sheep in the Missouri Breaks are really doing well.
"We feel we have an expanding population in the Missouri Breaks and felt we have a sufficient population to transplant 20 ewes," added Rosgaard. "I guess that we figure in the Missouri Breaks is that we are talking about two different hunting districts, 680 north of the river and 482 south of the river. Between those two places, we are talking 450 to 500 sheep we have been seeing on our counts."
The size of that sheep range is large, stretching from the Fred L. Robinson Bridge to the east all the way to Judith Landing in the west. The habitat stretches around five miles south and north of the Missouri River.
To compensate for the transplanted ewes this year, fewer hunting permits were issued for that area last fall.
"We have for the last three or four years issued 10 ewe tags and 10 either sex tags. This year we knew we wanted to transplant the sheep, so we only issued one ewe tag on each side," said Rosgaard. "That way we felt we could transplant a total of 20 ewes."
Finally, all the planning was finished and moving day for the sheep was at hand.
"On Feb 9 and 11, the weather was a little tough, but using a helicopter and a net gun, they captured 20 altogether. Five north of the Missouri and fifteen south of the river," said Rosgaard. "A net gun looks like a shot gun and shoots a net over a sheep. The helicopter lands and a man jumps out and handles the sheep or one is on the ground with the net. Then the sheep is put on a sling and transported to a base camp where they are tested for parasites and disease. Radio collars were put on 11 and the others were marked with a colored neck band so they can be identified."
After that sheep were transported by truck and stock trailer to their new home. Northern Montana sheep seemed happy to get into the rugged Elk Horn territory.
"Reports I have from the individuals who did the transporting is that they opened up the gates and the sheep ran into their new home. Took off quickly into their new surroundings," added Rosgaard.
So thanks are due from Elk Horn area hunters.
"One comment I would have is that sportsmen in that part of the state owe us big time for helping them out," Rosgaard said, laughing.
A goal of that transport was to get another sheep population established that will give hunting opportunities where there have been none before.
So why only ewes in that transport?
"There doesn't need to be one-to-one breeding, and in that area there is already an established ram population," said Rosgaard. "And typically, ewes will establish a home range and stay there more than rams who may tend to wander farther."
In northern Montana, bighorn sheep may be seen in the Missouri Breaks area, the Little Rockies and at the west end of Fort Peck Lake east and south of Malta.
Best of all habitat in this country, though, is those Missouri Breaks.
"The Missouri Breaks habitat is ideal. There is high quality grass on the flat areas at the tops of the breaks and always there is close by the security of steep side hills in that country," said Rosgaard.