The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission (FWP) approved the state's first-ever statewide plan for managing bighorn sheep. Officials say they hope the conservation plan will allow them to keep better tabs on bighorns and find new habitat for the animals.
Some bighorn advocates say the plan gives clear directions to state biologists on how to keep the population viable, but critics say it gives too much power to domestic sheep producers. Some say domestic sheep can pass pneumonia and other diseases to bighorns and wildlife managers work to keep bighorns away from domestic sheep.
There are roughly 5,700 bighorns in 45 herds in Montana and the state estimates the population could be increased by nearly 1,000.
The plan specifies that the state would not lobby federal land managers to remove domestic sheep from public land in order to make room for bighorns unless the affected ranchers agree to the plan.
Quentin Kujula of the FWP said the provision is critical to moving the plan forward. But others say that provision effectively gives sheep ranchers veto power over any attempt to expand bighorn habitat.
"I think this plan will maintain the status quo and make it difficult for the expansion of bighorns,'' said Bill Mealer, with the Safari Club.
Mealer said domestic sheep ranching would keep bighorns away from the Gravelly Mountains. However, sheep ranchers, including one rancher who leases U.S. Forest Service land in the Gravellys, defend the plan.
"We're not against bighorns,'' said Gravellyarea rancher John Helle."What we're against is the propaganda and the attempts of these groups to remove us from land we've been ranching on for generations.''
In a related story, FWP will let nature take its course with the remaining Rock Creek bighorn sheep battling a pneumonia outbreak.
"We didn't see any clear way to distinguish which ones to save and which ones to remove," said Mike Thompson, wildlife manager for FWP. "It appears to be spread through the whole herd we were able to sample. That solidified our decision to let it run its course."
Biologists flew a helicopter survey of the drainage last week. In the open country of the upper Rock Creek habitat, about 45 percent of the herd were coughing and showing other symptoms of the usually fatal disease. There have been about 340 bighorns in that area.
The lower part of the drainage had about 200 bighorns. Biologists have killed and tested 13 sheep, and all were infected. The disease is extremely contagious in wild sheep populations, and kills between seven and nine of every 10 victims.
Details from all the disease outbreaks this winter are being compiled for a report that's due around next August, Thompson said. It will include lab analyses of the dead animals and the types of pneumonia that killed them, effectiveness of the cull efforts and population surveys.
Reprinted in part from AP and The Missoulian