Count Bighorn Sheep as another casualty of North Dakota’s oil boom.
The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has moved what’s left of a herd of Bighorn Sheep away from heavily traveled U.S. Highway 85 in the North Dakota Bad Lands to protect them from the heavy truck traffic on the highway.
The move comes after at least six—and likely more—of the rare crittters have been killed by vehicles in the last couple of years. Brett Wiedman, a Big Game Management Biologist for GFD stationed in Dickinson, said this week “We know we’ve lost six, but I suspect there’s a lot more we don’t know about.”
The sheep were introduced into an area along the Little Missouri River just east of the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 2006. Wiedman said they started with 19 of them in 2006, and the herd grew to 43 by 2009. But by 2010, increased traffic on Highway 85—a major corridor for trucks serving North Dakota’s oil fields—began taking a toll on the herd, so 14 of them were moved to another area of the Bad Lands, away from the highway. 20 were left behind, but their numbers continued to decline, so the rest of the herd, about 15 animals—all but one of which were females or lambs—was moved last year. There were no mature rams—the trophy that North Dakota hunters seek—left in the herd, Wiedman said.
North Dakota issues four Bighorn Sheep tags to hunters who apply in a lottery drawing each year. In past years the number has been higher, but as the herd population has declined, so has the number of licenses. The department gets about 10,000 applications each year for those licenses, so the odds of getting one aren’t great. To further diminish the odds, one of the four is donated to the Foundation For North American Wild Sheep to be auctioned off as a fundraiser with the proceeds going to the Game and Fish Department to help pay for their work with the herd here. So only three of those 10,000 applicants get to hunt a Bighorn Sheep each year. Based on Wiedman’s observations, it appears at least that many of the sheep, and probably more, are taken by vehicles.
Randy Kreil, Wildlife Division Chief, said in an online video posted on the Department’s website last Thursday that he had hoped to increase the number of licenses to six or seven this year, but the loss of six rams on Highway 85 put an end to that. The news created a buzz in the Capitol hallways last Friday when hunters and conservationists gathered in the Capitol to testify on a pair of bills dealing with the establishment of an Outdoor Heritage Fund, using some of the proceeds the state collects from taxes on oil. Game and Fish officials had been keeping the news pretty quiet, in keeping with Jack Dalrymple’s dictate to state officials to keep bad news about the oil boom to a minimum, but Kreil had no choice but to talk about it because the application period for those licenses has now opened.
There are two bills dealing with the Outdoor Heritage concept, an idea which emerged last year in the form of an initiated measure that was waylaid by sponsors of the measure submitting—unknowingly—a number of petitions with fake names on them. One of the bills this session had the backing of Jack Dalrymple and the Republicans, calling for ten million dollars a year to be set aside for conservation practices—about one tenth of what the sponsors of the initiated measure had been seeking. Dalrymple’s bill was amended in the North Dakota House of Representatives to fifteen million and sent to the Senate for consideration. No word yet on whether Dalrymple will sign it if comes to him in that form. The other, sponsored by Senate Democrats, seeks to have the public vote on a fund of about 80 million a year, closer to what the state’s conservation community sought.
Both, in my opinion, have governance problems. Both measures call for unwieldy boards to administer the money. My guess is, one way or another, we’re going to get a chance to vote on the idea in 2014. And if we approve such a fund, some of the money will likely go to improving or protecting habitat of our big game animals. I haven’t heard any numbers on Mule Deer-vehicle encounters yet, but the number certainly is large enough to cause concern to both hunters and game management officials. Mule deer licenses have been cut drastically the last couple of years because of a diminishing herd, and hunters can expect even more bad news when the 2013 proclamation is issued. That should happen shortly. So far, Game and Fish Director Terry Steinwand has consistently blamed only the weather—three pretty harsh winters beginning in 2008-2009—for the decline in the deer herd (and other species as well). Well, we’re just finishing up our second mild winter in a row, so that dog ain’t going to hunt any more.
The Bighorn Sheep problem is a pretty good indicator of the impact of oil on wildlife. The herd that has now been moved after the fatalities was put there before the boom. Wiedman told me wistfully that it was put there because it is the right kind of habitat for Bighorns, and that they had no inkling of the explosion that was about to take place there. And as the drilling continues, there are going to be fewer and fewer spots with adequate habitat and protection from the oil trucks.
To be fair, this species of Bighorns is not native to North Dakota, with the first critters having been brought here in the 1950’s to replace the extinct Audubon Sheep species that had once lived here. But they have adapted well, and because Game and Fish has been very careful to manage the herd as it grew, we’ve come to adopt a real fondness for them. To spot a herd, or even a single animal or two, while hiking in or driving through the Bad Lands, is a rare treat. And the department has spent a good deal of money on them. To maintain this herd in the face of the massive development that is creeping deeper and deeper into the Badlands will be a real challenge to GFD biologists. We wish them well.
Footnote: There are pretty severe cuts in the number of moose and elk licenses this year as well. Not surprisingly, those cuts are in the north central and northwest corner of the state as well. “There just aren’t as many moose as there once were,” Kreil said. No mention of the fact that there’s something called an oil boom all over Moose Country in North Dakota. And the elk decline? Well, that’s being blamed on the National Park Service, because of the slaughter in Theodore Roosevelt National Park the last two years. And who do you suppose was a big proponent of hunting those elk in the National Park the last two years? You guessed it–the North Dakota Game and Fish Department.