Public meeting on FWP bighorn sheep release proposal set for Ennis

As soon as this winter, up to 50 bighorn sheep could be trapped in one part of the Madison Range and released in either Indian or Wolf Creek in the same range.

Area residents can learn more and weigh in on the plan at a public meeting scheduled for Oct. 8 in Ennis. The meeting is set to start at 6 p.m. at the Ennis High School.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Area Biologist Julie Cunningham said the goal of the proposed action is to establish a viable and huntable long-term population of bighorn sheep. She describes the release areas as potentially ideal for sheep reintroduction due to evidence showing the sheep once occupied these areas decades ago. The models she used also showed the areas, which are 92 percent public lands, would make great wintering habitat.

Cunningham and FWP say they have attempted to contact every landowner with 40 or more acres of property in or adjacent to the bighorn sheep habitat. They mailed postcards to smaller landowners and have kept agencies like county commissioners updated as well.

“A big concern of landowners it the competition with livestock and negative impacts on ag production,” Cunningham said.

There are three cattle allotments on the United States Forest Service land in the area. Local ranchers also winter horses and raise cattle nearby. Currently, the range is in good condition, according to Cunningham, so there should be minimal conflict. She said the bighorn sheep are smaller bodied than people think and she believes the habitat overlap will be minimal.

Another area of concern is the nearby county road, subdivision and private land access. According to FWP, residents of a subdivision on Pearson Road in the Wolf Creek area and folks at the Wonder Ranch have shown support for the plan, stating that FWP is welcome to release the bighorn sheep there in order for them to reach their habitat. Others in the area have not been as accommodating or easy to access. One trailhead to part of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest sits on private property that FWP cannot access without permission. Cunningham said that ranch owners in the area were not 100 percent on board with release of the animals there. CB Ranch managers Kate and Eric Roberts said it sounds like there is more support for the release in the Wolf Creek area and that they have heard mixed feedback from their neighbors.

During the pre-release informal scoping an area landowner approached Cunningham with an alternative release site he wanted her to consider. The site would be Wolf Creek behind the Sun Ranch and the Rising Sun Estates. Cunningham said she received positive feedback about this alternative. Alternatives to the proposed plan include no action, or transplanting 40-50 bighorn sheep from the Hilgards into the Indian Creek area, and a Wolf Creek release site. The Indian Creek release site is the preferred one by FWP. The lack of domestic sheep herds in the vicinity is an added bonus to the proposed plan, according to Cunningham. The nearest domestic herd is 14 miles from the proposed release location. She said bighorn sheep are a limited part of bears’ diets, but mountain lions may prove to be the predators to affect the sheep’s population.

The sheep would be captured with a drop net. Additional costs would be for radio collars and drugs to sedate the animals for a short period of time.

“The public has a strong voice, but the FWP Commission will ultimately decide after the comment period,” Cunningham said. The issue could be sent to the commission as early as this month and be heard next month.

The draft environmental assessment is available in print at the FWP Region 3 office – 1400 S. 19th Ave. – or FWP headquarters in Helena – 1420 E. 6th Ave. It can also be downloaded from FWP’s website at fwp.mt.gov under Recent Public Notices.

Comments will be accepted until 5 p.m. on Oct. 16, and may be emailed to juliecunningham@mt.gov or mailed to Julie Cunningham, Bozeman Area Biologist, 1400 S. 19th Ave., Bozeman, MT 59718.

“We’re looking forward to the meeting,” Kate Roberts said. “We’re just going to wait and listen.”

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