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Montana FWP Announces Unprecedented Research, Management & Restoration Efforts for Bighorn Sheep and Rocky Mountain Goats

March 9, 2023
posted in: Conservation, News

During the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation (MTWSF) annual fundraiser, on February 25, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) formally announced an unprecedented 5-year investment in research, management, and restoration efforts for wild bighorn sheep and Rocky Mountain goats.

MTFWP’s Chiefs of Management and Research, Brian Wakeling and Justin Gude, respectively, gave an overview of the two projects: 1) Coproducing science to evaluate contact risk factors between wild and domestic sheep and 2) Statewide adaptive management of bighorn sheep and mountain goats. The scope of project work is broad, with many subprojects within each. Figures 1 and 2 present, geographically, the bighorn sheep herd units identified where projects would be conducted, pending Fish and Wildlife Commission approval.

These projects are a result of collaboration between FWP, MT Woolgrowers Association (MTWGA), MTWSF, the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF), Montana State University (MSU) Animal & Range Science (ARS), the University of Montana (UM) Wildlife Coop Unit, and the FWP wild sheep and goat working group.

“This work is the most comprehensive effort FWP (or likely any other State or Provincial agency) has undertaken for wild sheep and goats,” said Kurt Alt, Conservation Director for the Wild Sheep Foundation and MTWSF.

The two projects will address distribution, augmentations, new herd development/expansion, habitat management, pathogens, predation, and comingling between domestic and wild sheep. These projects are funded by hunter-derived funding from Montana Bighorn Sheep permits and Pitman-Robertson matching funds, about 8 million dollars over the next five years.

FWP’s announcement came during a seminar series with state biologists, Helena administrators, and UM Wildlife Coop. Unit and MSU College of Ag. Animal and Range Sciences. They also gave updates on the Little Belt and Tendoy wild sheep restoration efforts, Greenhorn sheep herd status, all Region 2 sheep populations, Highland’s Test and Remove project, and a Working Dogs 4 Conservation presentation discussing the role that dogs may be able to play in separation management strategies. In addition, FWP representatives answered questions regarding their involvement with the wild and domestic sheep projects.

“As a result of a series of meetings and research planning over the last few years among FWP, MTWSF, MTWGA, and MSU ARS, we are launching a large-scale study into patterns of bighorn- domestic sheep comingling starting July 1 of this year,” explained Justin Gude. “This is a genuine co-production project, with wild and domestic interests and scientists at the table. It will involve collaring hundreds of both species across eight herds that cover the gambit of bighorn herd size/migratory status, domestic herd size, and domestic husbandry practices. This baseline-type study will elucidate patterns useful in their own right. It will also likely lead to some experimental introduction of management practices to see if comingling rates can be reduced.”

“The Montana Wild Sheep Foundation applauds MTFWP and partners for establishing these collaborative and progressive projects,” commented D.J. Berg, President of the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation. “These efforts will benchmark future improvements to Montana's bighorn sheep herds and will undoubtedly improve the distribution and health of the species. We are proud of the progress our State is making and look forward to supporting these projects into the future.”

“This is an exceptional example where collaboration and partnership work to benefit wildlife, agriculture, people, and the Montana way of life. The Wild Sheep Foundation has been honored to annually raise funds for MTFWP by selling the Montana bighorn sheep permit. We are thrilled to see these impactful monies leveraged with PR Act dollars to help fund this legacy program,” noted WSF President & CEO Gray N. Thornton.

Brian Wakeling added, “Adaptive management is pointing us toward the possible expansion of bighorn distribution, the enhancement of struggling populations, the reduction of comingling and pathogen transmission risk, to reduce social conflict resulting from these actions.”


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