Game & Fish: We May See a Bighorn Sheep Season, So Apply Now

It’s time again for what is affectionately called the “Big Three” application period, and this year has good news on all fronts.

The State Game and Fish Department is bumping up the number of elk and moose licenses over last year, and bighorn sheep are back in the mix after a year with no season. That sheep season is a highlight that needs some further explanation, as the process will be a bit different than in past years.

Last year, Game and Fish did not allocate any bighorn licenses because of concerns over how much an outbreak of pneumonia in late summer and fall of 2014 had reduced the wild sheep population. Agency biologists needed time to regroup and determine how many sheep made it through the die-off.

During spring, summer, and fall surveys in 2015, biologists did observe a harvestable surplus of rams that survived the disease event. With that information in hand, the Department is once again recommending a potential season for 2016.

This year, instead of deciding on a number, or to not have a sheep season at all based on last year’s surveys, Game and Fish is adjusting the process so biologists can factor in 2016 spring and summer surveys. Since the summer survey takes place in August, biologists can determine bighorn license numbers by Sept. 1.

To allow this new timeline to work, Game and Fish had a couple of options. One would be to have a separate bighorn sheep proclamation that would be drafted by early September, and then have a separate application period and lottery drawing. Under such a scenario, lucky hunters might not find out that they got a license until a couple of weeks before the season would open.

The preferred option that Game and Fish is going to try this year is to continue to have prospective hunters apply at the same time as moose and elk. The big difference is that Game and Fish will hold all those bighorn applications and prepare them for a lottery shortly after the number of licenses is determined by Sept. 1, rather than having the lottery in April or May when the moose and elk drawings are held.

Since the bighorn sheep season doesn’t start until late October, hunters would still have several weeks for preparation.

The only potential drawback to this trial process is if there is a recurrence of pneumonia, there may not be enough mature rams to warrant a season. If that should happen, state law says the moose, elk and sheep application fee of $5 for each species is nonrefundable, so sheep applicants could not receive a refund, even if there wasn’t a season.

Now, most people who apply for bighorn licenses know it’s a long shot in the first place. But a long shot is better than no shot, and Game and Fish wants hunters to understand the situation heading into the application period. Holding off on establishing sheep license numbers until after this year’s surveys are completed creates a slight risk that hunters could apply for a license and then not have a season.

The benefits, Game and Fish believes, make this new process worth a try. Having recent surveys to draw from means the ability to more strategically allocate licenses, or to not issue any licenses if necessary.

For prospective hunters who still want to put their name in the hat, so to speak, the application deadline is March 23.

Doug Leier

Mr. Leier is an outreach biologist for North Dakota Game & Fish and he writes a weekly outdoors column distributed throughout North Dakota media outlets.

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