BLM takes active role in Bighorn sheep reintroduction

Story by Jesse Hankins, UMRBNM Wildlife Biologist

Staff from the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument recently assisted Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) during a bighorn sheep capture effort.

Bighorn Sheep in trailer
Bighorn sheep loaded in trailer and
awaiting delivery. Photo by Jesse
Hankins, BLM

Nearly fifty sheep were captured from the Missouri River Breaks north of Winifred, Montana, and reintroduced to the South Fork Judith River area of the Little Belt Mountains. This effort is the first of its kind in 17 years and takes place 10 years after the Montana Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy recommended a reintroduction into the Little Belt Mountains.

helicopter delivering bighorn sheep to ground crew
Helicopter delivers two bighorn
sheep to be processed by ground
crew. Photo by Matthew Comer,
BLM

Residing predominately in the Missouri River Breaks of hunting district 482 and

spending much of their lives on BLM lands, the source herd is one of the most demographically robust in Montana with high recruitment and annual survival. Currently, the herd is approximately 20 percent over management objective, and thus a likely candidate to source the reintroduction.

Although not the most glamorous task, collection of body temperature is arguably one of the most important when capturing animals as their wellbeing is of highest priority. Loud helicopters, capture crews, flying and new environments can be stressful. The quickest way to assess their condition is with an internal body temperature. This information sheds light on the individual’s immediate wellbeing. In cases of increased temperatures, various methods to cool the animal are applied. Also while at this end, biologists collect fecal samples which can provide insight to the long-term health of an individual. Multiple analyses can be run with fecal pellets, revealing information about genetics, parasites, animal diet, and overall animal health.

After capture, the animals were delivered via horse trailer to their new destination, most of which is Forest Service administered lands. The effort was well attended with BLM, Forest Service, conservation groups and local private property owners lending a hand. Excitement was high with the hopes of again seeing Bighorn sheep in the Little Belt Mountains.