Are Montana bighorns rebounding?


Bighorn through the grass
Photo credits: Shutterstock

It’s a sign that bighorn populations are rebounding: Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) has added 15 ewe licenses for Hunting District 301, also known as the Spanish Peaks. This is the first time in 15 years that the area has been reopened for hunting, signaling that bighorn populations are bouncing back.

Bighorn sheep have faced their fair share of turmoil over the last few decades, weathering disease, extreme weather and low lamb recruitment. While MFWP’s decision to allow female bighorn hunting in HD 301 is a positive one, it doesn’t mean that the herd is completely in the clear.

In fact, MFWP biologist Julie Cunningham says that the herd number could still fluctuate every year and plans to keep a close eye on the population, adding, “We want to have high numbers of sheep, but I don’t want to have such high numbers of sheep that they’ll struggle in a bad winter.”

Continued below.

The latest count tallied at least 170 in the area; Cunningham wants to see between 150 and 200. Any more than that and the landscape may not be able to sustain them. Opening up the district to hunting allows for help managing the herd to keep numbers in check.

Yet, not everyone agrees with MWFP’s decision, including Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. Hockett wants MWFP to relocate excess sheep from the Spanish Peaks herd to help other herds rebound within the state, something Montana has done in the past with other herds in other areas.

“I would much rather see that if they believe there’s too many sheep ... that these excess sheep be used to augment other habitat,” says Hockett.

What do you think? Should excess bighorns be used to boost other herds? Or do you agree with MWFP’s decision to allow limited ewe hunting?

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