Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and partnering organizations and agencies captured and translocated bighorn sheep this month to an area of the Little Belt Mountains about 65 miles southeast of Great Falls.
Bighorn sheep, whose populations were once vast across the West, were extirpated from the Little Belts by the early 20th century. In the past 10 years, a few bighorn sheep have naturally returned to the mountain range, and although FWP biologists have documented lamb production there since 2015, they have been unable to verify more than six sheep at one time in the entire range.
The historical significance of wild sheep in the Little Belts is depicted by Native American pictographs along the Smith and Judith river drainages and observations from renowned Montana artist Charles M. Russell, who noted in the early 1880s that the area “swarmed with … mountain sheep” and other wildlife.
On Dec. 17, FWP and partners released 50 bighorn sheep near these storied landmarks along the South Fork of the Judith River in the eastern Little Belts.
The sheep — five young rams and 45 ewes — were captured on the south banks of the Missouri River Breaks in bighorn sheep hunting district 482, an area with a productive sheep herd that has grown past population objectives.
During capture work, FWP staff and volunteers collected biological samples from the sheep and outfitted each animal with a GPS collar. These collars will provide real-time information that will help biologists monitor the sheep’s movements, habitat use and survival for up to five years.
The capture and release were preceded by extensive public scoping, planning and habitat modeling that showed the Little Belts as having high-quality summer and winter ranges for sheep. FWP published an environmental assessment for the project in July, following guidelines described in the 2010 Montana Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy.
FWP expects to continue translocating bighorn sheep to areas within the Little Belts that are likely to support distinct herds of at least 125 sheep. Over time, there will likely be some connectivity between these herds, but only limited connectivity with existing herds outside the Little Belts.
Many organizations contributed to the success of this year’s sheep restoration efforts in the Little Belts. Funding was donated by the National Wild Sheep Foundation, the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, the Great Falls Chapter of Safari Club International, KUIU, Kenetrek and the Montana Bowhunters Association. FWP funds came from the Bighorn Sheep Auction License Fund. The project was also supported by private landowners including domestic sheep producers and members of the Montana Wool Growers Association, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.
“This project would not have been possible without the collaboration, financial support and volunteerism of landowners, NGOs, private companies and local volunteers,” said FWP’s area biologist, Jay Kolbe. “We appreciate all the partners who came together to help.”
To watch a video presentation of this translocation, visit https://youtu.be/K6ML4TXurZU