More than a decade had passed since Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had last been forced to kill bighorn sheep on Mount Jumbo. But when the agency got word earlier this month that three rams from the Bonner herd had bedded down with a flock of domestic sheep, there were only two options: Cull all three, or risk them carrying pathogens back to a population already staggering from a pneumonia-related die-off.
According to FWP biologist Vickie Edwards, the Bonner bighorn herd has nosedived from more than 150 sheep in 2010 to an estimated 35 this spring—a troubling reminder of how quickly the animals can succumb to disease. But issues on Mount Jumbo are just the beginning. FWP and the city of Missoula have a long-standing protocol governing domestic sheep and bighorn interactions up there, Edwards says. The bigger potential threat lies elsewhere: small, rural hobby flocks along the lower Blackfoot.
“It was only anywhere from one to five in some drainages,” Edwards says, “but I had no idea there were domestic sheep and goats in those areas.”
The increasing popularity of hobby farming has thrown FWP a curveball when it comes to monitoring comingling of bighorns with domestic sheep and goats. Edwards has given presentations before the Bonner Milltown Community Council. She’s spoken publicly about the issue, reached out to whatever sheep growers she can locate. Still, she’s caught off-guard at times.
“Unfortunately it’s still not enough,” she says of current outreach efforts, “especially in a county, an area, where we have a lot of new people moving in and they may not be aware of the issues.”
Jim Weatherly, executive director of the nonprofit Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, says the problem isn’t isolated to the Bonner herd. Similar issues have cropped up in lower Petty Creek and lower Rock Creek. Herders and dogs can help prevent contact, and protocols like that between FWP and the city provide a framework for response. But, Weatherly says, “obviously that’s not 100-percent foolproof.”
FWP is now in a holding pattern over what to do with the Bonner herd. Recent roadkill fatalities on Highway 200—up to 10 a year—have been a double-whammy for the bighorn, raising the possibility of a public discussion on amending part of the agency’s 10-year bighorn conservation strategy.
“There may be opportunity to work with the public on reevaluating that chapter,” she says, adding that such a forum might be a good time to establish a closer relationship with hobby flock owners too.