Bighorn Sheep
Populations Expanding

Game Range Ramblin's

Game Range Articles
by Mike Thompson,
FW&P wildlife biologist,
writing for the Pathfinder


June 28, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

by Mike Thompson


It's a shame I have to leave the Blackfoot-Clearwater area to work with bighorn sheep, but luckily I don't have to travel far.

The biggest challenge is to make it past the Bonner exit without absent-mindedly turning up the Blackfoot. If I can accomplish that, it's only a few quick miles on Interstate 90 to the mouth of Rock Creek, where my responsibilities for monitoring bighorn sheep begin.

Most of our monitoring is done from a helicopter or airplane, but this year we couldn't afford the expense of the usual aerial survey. So, John Firebaugh, Nick DeCesare and I took advantage of one of those gorgeous days last week to try our luck on foot.

It was a better aerobic workout than a helicopter ride, except for that time a couple of years ago when, for some reason, it really bothered me to look down past my feet through the bubble and see nothing but thousands of feet of air between me and the guys in their Orvis costumes who were fishing Rock Creek. My heart was beating that day, too.

You all know John. He's one of seven regional wildlife managers for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP), based in Missoula.

Nick DeCesare is a new name for us. Nick is a graduate student at the University of Montana, who hopes to earn a masters degree in wildlife biology by studying the movements of sheep that have pioneered into the geographic gaps between areas occupied by long-established bighorn populations. He's been able to capture and radio-collar several such bighorns near Bearmouth, Garrison and Skalkaho Creek.

Two rams that Nick collared at Bearmouth had made their way over to lower Rock Creek earlier this spring. That helped Nick justify in his own mind why he was participating in our sheep hunt. But, John and I knew the real reason we asked Nick to join us.

He's young enough, with strong enough legs, to pack us out if necessary.

We made it a foursome when we met up with a local resident and bighorn aficionado, A. J. Michnevich. A. J. gave us a big head start in our survey with his count of 88 sheep at the mouth of Brewster Creek only a few days earlier. He would revisit Brewster Creek to see if he could still account for that group while John, Nick and I started searching farther north.

Then came the awkward job of dividing up the territory among the three biologists. I was hoping that Nick would volunteer to hike up Babcock Mountain, since it was the largest unit we would search, and it was the farthest from the truck. But, after a few minutes of hinting around and kicking dirt, it became apparent that Nick didn't know what game we were playing. We finally had to come right out and suggest that he take Babcock. John headed up Spring Creek Ridge and I went up the unnamed mountain that Goat Creek drains.

It only took me a few minutes to begin adding sheep to A. J.'s earlier count. They were across Spring Creek, on a ledge above John. I was pretty sure he wouldn't be able to see them from the route he intended to hike, so I sat down, set up the tripod and scope, and began the survey in earnest.

Two yearling rams were walking on a talus slope, but eight other sheep were bedded. I could only see their heads, and sometimes only their horns, sticking up above the rocky shelf. Still, it was enough to classify them as adult ewes. But, did they have lambs?

They did have magpies! I've never thought of the bighorn as a particularly filthy animal, but it's pretty bad when the birds are chasing the flies off. The magpies would sit on the backs of the sheep, and occasionally on their heads, until a disgruntled ewe would finally stir the roost with a sharp sweep of its horns.

The longer I watched, the more ears I counted, barely poking up, then disappearing from view. Soon it became apparent that there were more than twice as many ears as ewes.

So, I resumed my climb to gain a better vantage point. While doing so, I noticed more movement in that direction and pulled up the binoculars. Sure enough, at least some of the extra ears belonged to puffy, springy, month-old lambs.

After gaining some elevation, I set the scope up again and accounted for 8 ewes and 8 lambs bedded together on the ledge. But, by the time I finished scoping the area, I found another 11 adult ewes, 2 yearling ewes, and 7 lambs. I hiked the rest of the day without gaining more than some very good exercise.

Nick picked up another 25 sheep on Babcock. These were ewes (without lambs) and yearling rams, which were segregated from the maternal ewes. Nick even noticed the glint of sunlight reflecting from a metal eartag on one of the ewes, almost certainly indicating that she was brought to lower Rock Creek as part of a supplemental transplant from Anaconda in 1987. That makes her at least 15 years old, which might explain the absence of a lamb with her.

John managed to spot two sheep, but we had to discount them as possible duplicates of some of the sheep I counted. Including A. J.'s earlier results, we came up with a conservative total of 79 adult ewes, 31 lambs, 4 yearling ewes, and 16 young rams (1-3 years old). That accounts for least 130 bighorns in lower Rock Creek, not counting the few dozen older rams that will become readily visible as the rut approaches this fall.

Afterward, Nick returned to his studies, none the worse for wear. Maybe his work will give us insights as to whether we can expect bighorns to repopulate most of their historic ranges across western Montana by dispersing naturally from the isolated core populations that FWP has worked so diligently to restore over the past 50 years.

And, why wouldn't we hope to see sheep farther up the Blackfoot in the future? After all, Warden Jeff Campbell reported an antelope buck on Kleinschmidt Flats a few days ago!