Ellis Peak in the Tendoy Mountains of Montana
You may ask, "Why does NWF focus so much of our work on bighorn sheep conservation?" The simple answer is - bighorn are in trouble. Wild sheep occupy only a fraction of their historic range and their populations remain in jeopardy because of habitat loss and disease from their domestic counterparts. For nearly 20 years NWF has worked to create separation between wild and domestic sheep on public land through voluntary grazing allotment retirements. This work has been immensely successful and we have retired over 1.3 million acres of conflict grazing areas over the past twenty years and have secured dozens of bighorn sheep herds that faced risk of disease die-offs.
In 2013, NWF and our partners worked to retire two critical domestic sheep allotments in the Tendoy Mountains of southwest Montana, Indian Creek and Bear Canyon. In addition, we retired several allotments south of the Tendoys in the North Beaverhead Mountains that also posed a significant risk of disease contact. In total, thanks to our generous donors and supporters, NWF invested nearly $500,000 towards these projects.
Bighorns in the Tendoys had long battled disease issues and by reducing the disease vector, the stage was set for a recovery plan. Unfortunately, Mycoplasma Ovipneumonia remained present in the herd and it was clear that the herd would never fully recover if the disease remained in the herd. In 2015 Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks approved a controversial plan for hunters to kill the remaining 50 animals in the Tendoys with a goal to ultimately replace those sheep with disease free animals from elsewhere in the state.
On February, 27 bighorns were captured from Wild Horse Island on Flathead Lake and released at the mouth of Muddy Creek in the Tendoy Mountains. All 27 animals (2 lambs) were fitted with GPS remote downloadable collars to track their movements to see how they adapt to their new home. Next year the plan is to transplant an additional 25 animals to the Tendoys with the expectation that the new, disease- free herd will flourish and expand.
Although we started our work in the Tendoys eight years ago, we couldn't be more pleased to see bighorns once again thriving in this landscape!
A map of the "High Divide" Montana/ Idaho border
NWF Grazing Retirements in the High Divide
A bighorn being fitted with a collar for release
Bighorn sheep are well adapted to harsh conditions