Coordinated Effort Expands Bighorn Sheep Populations in the Black Hills | TSLN.com

Coordinated Effort Expands Bighorn Sheep Populations in the Black Hills

Lura Roti
for S.D. Game, Fish and Parks

A new sub-herd of bighorn sheep took up residence in the Black Hills this winter thanks to a cooperative effort between South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks, the Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority and the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation. The sheep were transplanted from Montana's Rocky Boy Indian Reservation to Hell Canyon in hopes of increasing the population and existing herd health of the nearby Elk Mountain bighorn sheep herd.

"There is a tremendous opportunity for renewability of bighorn sheep populations in the Hills," explains John Kanta, Regional Wildlife Manger for South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GF&P).

Plagued by disease in recent years, Kanta explains that Black Hills bighorn sheep numbers have declined dramatically since 2005.

"Although bighorn sheep are native to the Hills, sustaining the herd isn't as simple as providing habitat. About 10 years ago we lost about 80 percent of the Custer State Park herd to pneumonia," says Kanta, of the disease wildlife biologists believe the herd contracted from domestic sheep or goats.

For years, hunters have felt the effects of reduced herd numbers. In 2013, more than 4,000 applicants vied for the two bighorn sheep licenses issued in the state via lottery. A third tag was put on the auction block to fund habitat and population restoration efforts.

"Bighorn sheep are one of the most sought after big game species in the Black Hills," Kanta says.

Recommended Stories For You

Limited odds didn't detour Matt "Rip" Rippentrop from vying for a license. The Oelrichs' hunter entered bighorn sheep license lotteries in multiple states 10 years straight before his name was drawn in 2009 to hunt bighorn sheep in Montana.

"They call it sheep fever for a reason. A bighorn sheep hunt is unlike anything I'd ever experienced," says Rippentrop, noting the terrain, the opportunity to experience bighorn sheep in their natural environment and witnessing rams head butting as creating an adventure he will never forget. "After my bighorn hunt experience, I want to make sure more hunters can share this experience."

Walking the talk, Rippentrop is an active member of the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation. An organization founded by hunters like Rippentrop to increase bighorn sheep populations throughout the U.S., the Wild Sheep Foundation partners with public and private entities to help raise dollars to fund bighorn sheep transplants, like the one in Hell Canyon.

The Black Hills transplant was funded in part by dollars raised from the 2013 sheep tag auction which raised more than $100,000. To transplant 20 sheep to the Black Hills it costs about $20,000.

"This is an excellent example of how sportsmen's dollars are used for wildlife conservation," said Mike Kintigh, Regional Supervisor with South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (GF&P). "When sportsmen purchase licenses, they are reinvesting in the state's wildlife."

Team players

Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority played a key role in locating a bighorn herd to transplant to the Black Hills.

At the time, the Montana's Chippewa Cree Tribe wanted to reduce their herd of approximately 140 bighorn sheep on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. They contacted Oglala Sioux Parks and Recreation Authority (OSPRA) to see if they were interested in transplanting 40 of the bighorn sheep to Cuny Table in the Badlands National Park. However, OSPRA only wanted 20 wild sheep, but lacked the funding for the transplant. This is when the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation got involved. They agreed to fund the Oglala Sioux's portion of the transplant, as long as Oglala Sioux was willing to allow S.D. GF&P to transplant the remaining 20 bighorn sheep to the Black Hills.

"This was truly a cooperative effort between four entities working to enhance bighorn sheep populations in South Dakota," Kintigh said.

Beyond funding, transplanting wildlife to a new habitat is no small feat, Kanta explains.

With the aid of a helicopter and netgun, wildlife biologists collect the bighorn sheep and transport them to a central location where they undergo a thorough health inspection and tested for disease, are checked for pregnancy, fitted with radio collars and placed in a trailer for transportation.

"Veterinarians have to give them a clean bill of health before we transplant them. We would never risk the health of our existing herd," Kanta says. "The process is very humane and designed to put as little stress on the sheep as possible."

All 40 bighorn sheep passed the inspection and many ewes were found to be pregnant. Kanta is eager to see what lambing rates will be this spring. He says Hell Canyon not only provides ideal bighorn sheep habitat with its rugged steep slopes or escape terrain, and open grazing meadows; but the habitat neighbors Elk Mountain where an existing herd of Black Hills bighorn sheep reside.

"We hope they will intermingle with the Elk Mountain bighorn sheep to not only increase overall population but also strengthen bloodlines by providing needed genetic diversity," Kanta says of what he hopes will be the transplants next successful chapter.

To view the bighorn sheep capture first hand visit http://www.gfp.sd.gov/agency/video.aspx and search for video entitled "Rocky Boy Bighorn Relocation."