Bighorn sheep in Montana were first recorded by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805 and 1806 with the majority of the bighorn sightings recorded on the expedition as being along the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Today ’s bighorn sheep conservation story dates back to 1869 when Montana’s first conservation law was passed by Montana’s Territorial Legislature and in 1872 hunting seasons were established for big game, including bighorn sheep. Over the years since then, our bighorn sheep herds have seen a lot of change as the herds have been impacted by poor range conditions, severe winter weather, and diseases transmitted by domestic sheep. Montana’s bighorns were at one of their all-time lows in density and distribution by 1941.
Today, approximately 5,000 bighorn sheep inhabit Montana in 45 distinct populations over 3.7 million acres. The present numbers of bighorn sheep in Montana are due to regulated hunting, transplanting of sheep from healthy herds to areas with excellent sheep habitat as well as reductions in domestic sheep and goats in sheep habitat which has reduced the transmission of disease to the wild sheep.
Montana’s Wild Horse Island State Park, with its excellent bighorn habitat and lack of hunting has provided a virtual “nursery” for bighorn sheep and over the years has provided a significant number of sheep for transplants to other locations around Montana. Although nearly all of Montana’s sheep populations are known for their horn growth and “trophy” quality, Wild Horse Island has produced some outstanding rams over the years.
Recently a ram was found dead on the island and because of its exceptional size, it was entered in the Boone and Crockett Records of North American Big Game. When it was scored, it was determined that it was a potential world’s record bighorn ram. As a result, a special Boone and Crockett judges panel was called in Bozeman, Montana to certify the score as the world’s record.
Montana’s Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission met this past week to consider proposed changes to Montana’s hunting regulations. Among the issues considered was a proposal from Libby area sportsmen requesting a new “limited entry” mule deer area in a portion of hunting district 103 comprising about 132,000 acres.
Montana has very few mule deer areas which are managed as “limited entry” or “trophy areas” because the overarching philosophy for mule deer management in Montana is that Montana is an “opportunity” state. Opportunity generally means that in nearly all mule deer units one can harvest a mule deer buck over five weeks of the rifle season as well as the archery season. The rifle season extends through Thanksgiving annually and includes all of the mule deer “rut” period. As a result, the majority of mule deer bucks are especially susceptible to being harvested annually and few mule deer bucks reach “maturity” at five years of age before being killed by a hunter. Hunters who choose to limit their take to older and more mature mule deer bucks have to hunt very hard on public land or have access to private lands where mule deer buck harvests are not so liberal.
Limited entry mule deer seasons are extremely attractive to Montana’s resident and nonresident hunters. In hunting unit 270 in the Bitterroot Valley which is a limited entry unit, 7362 hunters applied for the 45 mule deer buck permits issues for that area.
Montana’s big game season setting process usually involves FWP biologists making recommendations to the Fish and Wildlife Commission with their recommendations based upon their data and public input received via public meetings. The norm for these seasons is that they usually reflect more of the department’s position than that of the public. The new Libby area “limited entry” unit is an anomaly in that it came from a local citizen’s initiative and was adamantly opposed by FWP professionals. It “breathes new life” into the idea that Montana’s hunter can have a significant voice in the choices available to them for hunting our mule deer as well as other big game species.