By Doug Leier, NDG&F Dept.
Thousands of North Dakota big game hunters are starting to count the days until their season opens in the coming weeks.
Most have their sights set on the annual unofficial holiday that is opening day of deer gun season on Nov. 10, but a handful have perhaps a bit more anticipation stored up for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to hunt bighorn sheep, which starts on Nov. 3. While a lot of deer hunters who drew lottery licenses this year may feel a bit lucky, and may have had to sit out a season or two before the odds tipped in their favor, this year’s bighorn hunters beat incredible odds to have a chance to hunt a North Dakota sheep.
For 2017, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department allocated five bighorn sheep licenses. Four were issued via lottery drawing, with more than 13,000 prospective hunters applying. That’s more than one in 2,500. The other license, as authorized under North Dakota Century Code, was auctioned last spring by the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, from which all proceeds are used to enhance bighorn sheep management in North Dakota.
In 2016, Game and Fish issued eight sheep licenses. All eight hunters were successful in harvesting a legal ram. Even though the number of licenses has always been low, typically ranging from three to six a year over the past two decades, interest is consistently high, with annual odds at around one in 2,000, plus or minus a few hundred.
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. Hunters applied in March at the same time as for moose and elk licenses. The bighorn survey was completed in late August, then the lottery was held and Game and Fish notified successful applicants.
Two licenses are available in Unit B3 and two in B4, which are both north of Interstate 94 in western North Dakota. The auction license hunter can hunt in any open unit. The number of once-in-a-lifetime bighorn licenses allotted to hunters is based on data collected from the Department’s summer population survey. Results of the survey showed a total of 83 rams, or 21 fewer than 2016.
Brett Wiedmann, Department big game management biologist in Dickinson, said the 20 percent decline in ram numbers was the result of an ongoing bacterial pneumonia outbreak that was first detected in 2014.
“In addition, 2016 had the lowest lamb recruitment on record so very few yearling rams were observed,” Wiedmann said. “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.”
Right now the state’s bighorn sheep population is around 300 animals. For such a small population, it continues to draw a high level of interest and appreciation from the citizens of North Dakota.
Leier is a biologist for the Game and Fish Department.
(Featured Photo: Five Bighorn Sheep tags were issued in North Dakota this year, with one being auctioned off by the Wild Sheep Foundation. NDG&F Photo)