The Fish & Wildlife Commission took final action on the proposed Madison bighorn sheep transplant at the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) Dec. 12 meeting in Helena.
The Fish & Wildlife Commission was presented with three alternatives at its meeting last week: no action, transplant of 40-50 bighorn at Indian Creek with possible follow up releases and 40-50 bighorn transplanted to Wolf Creek with possible follow up releases.
“Accepting both alternatives B and C—transplant and release at either Indian Creek or Wolf Creek with possible follow up releases—allows FWP to proceed with the preferred alternative (release at Indian Creek) while accepting Wolf Creek as an alternative site pending the logistics of the release,” FWP Region 3 supervisor Pat Flowers told the commission.
The FWP proposed to reintroduce bighorn sheep into the Madison Mountains near Cameron at either Indian Creek or Wolf Creek, both of which were native bighorn sheep habitat, according to the FWP. According to FWP biologist Julie Cunningham, the southern Madison Mountains support a healthy native population of bighorn sheep; although, in the past the herd endured several all-age die-offs and had augmentations in the 1980s and 1990s.
Kate Roberts, whose family owns and operates the C B Ranch near the proposed Indian Creek release site, said Flowers told her after the commission’s decision he was unsure of which site they would choose, but that Indian Creek was the preferred site. He said the only reason FWP would not go with that choice is if the snow prevented them from getting up there.
“I found this unsettling because he didn’t even talk about the landowner,” Roberts said. “I was disappointed the landowner was not his first concern. He referenced the weather instead of actual permission. Our opinion as landowners has been known since July and it hasn’t changed the decision.”
In the last year, Cunningham said she attempted contact with area landowners by scheduling meetings, making phone calls and sending out postcards and other correspondence throughout this process. She said most expected bighorn habitat is on public land, but further explained that private landowner involvement is key to approaching the potential release sites, which are on private lands adjacent to the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. Landowners near Wolf Creek in the Rising Sun subdivision have pledged support for the transplant in writing, according to FWP.
“I’m really for it and pretty excited,” Harry Liss said. Liss lives near Earthquake Lake–near the herd’s current habitat–and has seen the bighorn population come back from numbers as low as 11 after a die-off in the 90s. “There are so many bighorn sheep around Quake Lake and not enough winter habitat.”
The Indian Creek release site is further removed from the capture site, so bighorn transplanted to Wolf Creek may be more likely to return to the source population, Cunningham said. That return to the bighorns’ home area is a concern of Liss’. He said he is not totally sure if the bighorns will stay in the transplanted area, but he is glad to see someone at least trying to remedy the overpopulation.
Roberts said she feels FWP has not properly managed other wildlife in the area—elk, wolves and grizzlies—and immediately told the agency “no” when the CB Ranch was approached about the introduction of another non-domestic animal in the area.
According to Roberts, she has knowledge of a resident feeding the bighorn sheep hay in order to help some of the large herd survive with limited natural food sources.
“A herd of sheep should be 150. This herd is 300,” Roberts said. “This herd has been mismanaged and now the animals are dependent on hay. We are dependent on our hay for our own livestock. We also are not in a place where we can share our pastures.”
If FWP was to pursue the Indian Creek release location because the Wolf Creek site did not work or was inaccessible, Roberts said the agency would not be able to get to the release site without going through the C B Ranch. The bighorn sheep would be released at the neighboring Wonder Ranch, but the only access to the Wonder Ranch is through the C B Ranch. Roberts and her family have not and will not allow this, she said.
After discussions with landowners near Indian Creek, the FWP will trap up to 50 bighorn sheep from the southern Madison range herd in the Earthquake Lake area and reintroduce them at Wolf Creek, according to Flowers. Cunningham said sheep could be moved sometime in January or February, pending capture schedules with other operations. She added that the bighorn sheep would be captured using a drop net and sedated for transport to the release site.
A draft environmental assessment was released on Sept. 17 by FWP and was followed by a 52-day comment period ending Nov. 8. The comment period was extended in response to a request for more time, Flowers said. He said a public meeting held at the Ennis School on Oct. 8 was attended by 24 people. The agency said overall, 35 written comments were received and all but three supported some combination of release alternatives.
Flowers said a viable population would provide new recreational opportunities to include wildlife viewing and hunting. Biologically, establishing a new wintering area for bighorn in the Madison would increase biodiversity and restore a native species winter area after a 50-year absence.
A copy of the department’s decision notice, including a summary of the comments and details about the reintroduction plan, can be found at the following link: