By Doug Leier
North Dakota’s fish and wildlife diversity is impressive. From paddlefish and pallid sturgeon in the Missouri River to trophy catfish and lake sturgeon in the Red River. We’re home to mountain lions, moose and elk. Otters, fishers, bobcats and pine martens.
While few outside of the state would recognize the variety, North Dakotans take pride in sharing the water and land with these unique special residents. One of the more notable is the bighorn sheep.
Historically, bighorn sheep were considered extirpated; currently there are likely more bighorn sheep sure-footing their way along the rugged and equally gorgeous badlands in western North Dakota today than in the last 150 years.
“The last native bighorn confirmed in the state was killed in 1905 at Magpie Creek,” said Brett Wiedmann, North Dakota Game and Fish Department big game management biologist. “And we know that in the late 1800s Theodore Roosevelt hunted bighorns in North Dakota and killed a bighorn at Bullion Butte, but the animals were scarce by then.”
Currently, between the population managed by Game and Fish, which totals about 330 animals, and those managed by the National Park Service and Three Affiliated Tribes, Wiedmann said the overall bighorn sheep population is getting closer and closer to 500 bighorns.
Bighorn sheep in North Dakota are a success story. When you think about it, there was only a 50-year gap between the time when the last confirmed bighorn was killed at Magpie Creek to their reintroduction by Game and Fish in 1956.
“A lot of credit goes to Game and Fish staff back in the mid-1950s,” Wiedmann said. “We were one of the first states the bighorns were extirpated, and they took the initiative way back then to reintroduce that species. And since then, it’s just been a progression of introducing bighorns to the badlands.”
The turning point, certainly, was when Game and Fish introduced bighorns from Montana to the badlands in 2006 and 2007.
This is what Wiedmann had to say in 2006 about bringing bighorns in from Montana: “You try to find the closest match in terms of habitat that you can, and this is the first time since 1956 that we’ve transplanted bighorn stock from habitat so similar to ours. Bighorn sheep are creatures of habit, so this is important. Our hope is that when the sheep jump out of the trailer, they realize the badlands offer the same grasses they’re used to eating, it’s the same clay soils they’ve walked on … it’s just like home.”
Wiedmann today: “A real catalyst is when we introduced those bighorns from Montana. They are just perfectly adapted to our cold winters, and they have done so well as far as adult survival, lamb survival and population growth. They’re really just taking off.”
The Department allocated five bighorn sheep licenses for the 2021 hunting season. A record 19,126 applicants applied for the once-in-a-lifetime licenses.
To learn more about bighorn sheep in North Dakota, check out this full story in the October 2021 issue of North Dakota OUTDOORS on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov.
Leier is an Outreach Biologist with the North Dakota Game & Fish Department.
Featured Photo: Bighorn sheep are unique residents of North Dakota, brought back to the landscape in the mid-twentieth century. NDG&F Photo.