Montana bighorn sheep study to begin this summer

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This summer, Montana begins a monumental bighorn sheep study that will include collaring hundreds of wild sheep along with plenty of their domestic counterpart. The goal? To see how often bighorn sheep mingle with domestic sheep, according to the Post Register. The eight bighorn herds targets for the study include the Tendoy, Highland, Greenhorn, Cabinet and Little Belt mountain ranges as well as a herd in northern Madison Range near Gates of the Mountains and the town of Darby. 

There are currently about 6,000 bighorn sheep within the state.

“We want to understand how often they interact,” said Justin Gude, Research and Technical Service Section chief for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP). “It’s in the best interest of domestic sheep growers and wild sheep.”

As GOHUNT has previously reported, pneumonia – also known as Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae – has caused massive die-offs within bighorn sheep herds across the West and domestic sheep are the carriers of the bacteria. When wild sheep mix with domestic sheep they can bring the bacteria back to their herd and, thus, cause a die-off. Researchers believe this is the main reason behind stunted population growth among bighorn sheep.

“This is a baseline type study that will elucidate useful patterns that lead to experimental introduction of management practices to reduce commingling rates,” wrote Kurt Alt, conservation director for the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. “The previous data is pointing us toward conserving existing herds, expanding bighorn distribution and minimizing comingling and the risk of spreading pathogens.”

Specifically, researchers will analyze bighorn herd size, migratory status, domestic sheep herd size and domestic husbandry practices, according to the Post Register. The study, which will cost about $8 million, is a collaboration between FWP, the Montana Woolgrowers Association, the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation and the Wild Sheep Foundation as well as Montana State University Animal & Range Science and FWP’s wild sheep and goat working group.

“These efforts will benchmark future improvements to Montana’s bighorn sheep herds and will undoubtedly improve the distribution and health of the species,” said D.J. Berg, president of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation.


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