Part of the Montana bighorn sheep conservation strategy, the establishment of a viable and huntable bighorn sheep population in the Indian Creek area south of Cameron, is as close as this winter.
“The transplant would consist of a release of 40-50 bighorn sheep in the Indian Creek area,” FWP Wildlife Biologist Julie Cunningham said. “The source herd would come from the southern Madison Mountain Range by Quake Lake, where the current wintering population is approximately 150-180 animals.”
There is a statewide objective to establish five new populations over the next 10 years. The location in the Madison Valley is ideal for a number of reasons. Bighorn sheep were historically present in the Indian Creek area, and habitat models show this area should be an effective wintering area for the animals with plenty of escape terrain and summer habitat. There are no domestic sheep within many miles of the area, which means a decreased chance of disease outbreaks. The projected habitat is largely public lands with minimal impacts on local landowners and ranchers.
Cunningham said officials are currently in the idea phase and are talking one-on-one with all area landowners who have at least 40 acres in or adjacent to the proposed transplant site in order to hear their thoughts and concerns. Bighorn sheep inhabit about 3.7 million acres in Montana.
“We are meeting with other federal, state, and local agencies,” Cunningham said. Those agencies include the U.S. Forest Service, BLM, Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Madison County Commissioners.
Increased numbers of bighorn sheep means more animals for wildlife viewing, hunting opportunity and herd health. There are 40 bighorn sheep hunting districts in Montana. Five are unlimited districts and eight are currently closed to hunting. The separate wintering herd units are important because they provide some protection for the overall herd and genetics in case one subpopulation experiences a disease-related die-off. That was the case with previous bighorn sheep in the Indian Creek area. Sightings of the animals were recorded as recently as the 1960s before a die-off eliminated the herd unit. The use of native bighorn sheep would help build and maintain the herd’s genetic health. About 5,000 bighorn sheep inhabit Montana in 45 distinct populations.
A draft environmental assessment is in the works. It considers the effects of the proposal and will be released early this fall for public comment. Public comment will be sought through a public meeting, release of the draft environmental assessment online, and additional postcard mailings with information. Comments will be collated and considered as the draft environmental assessment is revised to a final version and a decision note will be prepared.
“Additional public comment could occur once it goes to the FWP Commission in late fall,” Cunningham said.