JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — So Long, Bighorn Sheep

I learned about this earlier in the week, but today it became official, when my copy of North Dakota Outdoors arrived in the mail: Add bighorn sheep to the list of species for which there will be no hunting season in North Dakota this year. Or for the foreseeable future. At least not likely in my lifetime.

The Game and Fish Department announced this week that because of the big die-off of bighorn sheep in the past year, they have ended sheep hunting in the state — for now. When — or if — there will ever be a season again is unknown. This is the first year since 1983 there will be no bighorn season.

Bighorns join mule deer does and sage grouse as species which will not be hunted here. In addition, like last year, there will be a severely reduced mule deer buck season and a limited pronghorn antelope season in just one small area of the extreme southern Bad Lands, with antelope season closed again in the rest of the state.

Moose licenses are down about 40 per cent from five years ago. Likewise elk. Moose licenses in the Oil Patch units are down 50 percent.

And whitetail deer licenses are down by more than two-thirds from the peak in 2009.

What the hell is going on here?

Game and Fish has lots of answers, all legitimate, I think, and all different for each species. For bighorns, the latest casualty, the Department says it is pneumonia. The herd has come in contact with a domestic sheep herd and caught pneumonia and is dying off in numbers so serious that the department’s wildlife chief, Jeb Williams, says “it would be irresponsible on the Department’s part to issue once-in-a-lifetime Bighorn licenses without further investigating the status of the population.”

In other words, it wouldn’t be fair to send someone afield who gets drawn  for one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts this year, because the odds are he won’t find anything to shoot. They say they’re not sure about that, but they don’t want to take a chance. Actually, they’re pretty sure, they just don’t want to say so. And I don’t blame them, just in case they are wrong, and there are a bunch of critters hiding out there they just haven’t found. But that’s unlikely. They keep  pretty good track of the critters.

I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he's grown up and still hanging around.
I spotted this yearling Bighorn south of Medora last summer. I hope he’s grown up and still hanging around.

And its not just pneumonia. The sheep are getting hit by trucks along the main highway through the Oil Patch, U.S. Highway 85, and the gravel roads leading up to it as well, taking a further toll on the population. Just about exactly two years ago this week, Game and Fish said they had lost six rams to collisions with vehicles along Highway 85 and had moved the remainder of what used to be a herd of 43 out of the area along Highway 85 to get them out of danger. I haven’t heard if they’ve lost any more to vehicles since then.

Since 1986, the beginning of the Conservation Reserve Program, North Dakota has been a hunter’s paradise. Now, it is a totally screwed up disaster. And it’s not just the species I’ve already mentioned that are hurting. Add pheasants, sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge to the list.  Game and Fish blames a lot of it on three bad winters a few years back, and loss of habitat with the disappearance of CRP. I agree, but I’ll add one more reason they don’t like to talk about: the oil boom. I’m adding it because the loss or decline of most of these seasons and species is taking place in Oil Country. That’s no secret, and that’s no coincidence.

I can tell you the guys at Game and Fish are getting tired of covering up the casualties caused by the boom though. Last spring, when I was doing a story about sage grouse for Dakota Country Magazine, which you can read on my blog by going here, one of the biologists, who gave me permission to use his name, although I didn’t, told me “Go ahead and use my name. I’m sick and tired of everyone walking on eggshells. This massive oil and gas development is bad for wildlife, and not just sage grouse. There are other species suffering just as bad.” That was a North Dakota Game and Fish Department biologist. He was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. And I don’t blame him. These biologists, more than any of us can imagine, really CARE about the critters.  His job is becoming almost impossible.

He didn’t list all the other species who are hurting, but I’ve listed them above.

There are some really big losers with this latest turn of events. First, we’re losing one of our most spectacular species. Losing any species is a disaster. Losing this one is hard for a couple more reasons:  There are four North Dakotans who might have been able to spend their autumn in the Bad Lands hunting for a bighorn sheep this year, but won’t get a chance. They may never get another chance. But bigger than that, the Department has donated one license each year to the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep to be sold at their annual banquet as a fundraiser. That has been bringing in about $75,000 a year for FNAWS. And FNAWS has been pumping money back into the state to help our sheep program here. That’s gone now.

Y’know, I know I can’t blame all this on the Oil Boom. But there are some days I really just want it to go away.

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