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.