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Hope and Hardship for Black Hills Bighorns

July 14, 2016 | By: Bob Speirs

The bighorn lambs were as interested in me as I was in them. So curious that for a moment we all forgot that we teetered on the brink of vertical cliffs south of Deadwood. After a long and smoky summer, the short time I spent with these sheep was among the highlights of my summer.

The lambs weren’t in much danger, but I don’t bounce quite as well as I used to and I had already left part of a lung struggling over the deadfall leading up to their nursery.

These lambs are the first generation to be “born and bred” in the Black Hills. They are the second lambs to be raised by 26 sheep reintroduced and relocated from Alberta two seasons ago.

Graduate student Ty Werdel of Chadron Nebraska was my guide. He is the lead field biologist for this particular group of sheep and is conducting a three-year study for his Master’s thesis. He shared a few details on the progress the animals are making.

“ So far we have not verified a single loss by wild predators.”

Werdel explained that cars have taken a few, several died from non-predatory unidentified causes such as falls, and one roaming ram had to be euthanized after making contact with a domestic herd.

“All fifteen of the lambs that were born in South Dakota last spring are still alive. Five lambs have been born so far this spring.”

That drop in fertility is possibly due to a lack of mature rams in last year’s herd. When the sheep were relocated, adult rams were left behind because they tend to roam, increasing the chance encounter with diseased domestic animals. This year there are five rams that are mature enough to compete for the ewes. The competition should yield a higher lamb crop next spring.

Even with the losses and short lamb crop this season there has still been a fifty percent increase of the total herd to forty animals. A splinter group of ten sheep has also set up a separate herd on the grounds of the federally protected former Gilt-Edge-Mine. Only reclamation activities are currently conducted in the previous mining area and the terraces have been seeded in such a nutritious blend that the yearlings from last spring are far heavier than the lambs that wintered near Deadwood, according to Werdel.

The Corp-of-Engineers is in charge of the mine cleanup and reclamation efforts and closely monitors access. The sheep graze undisturbed by traffic and have little to distract them from their efforts to pack on pounds for the coming winter and their late December breeding season.

While the newly released herd gives hope to Northern Hills residents, other groups of sheep in the central hills have been decimated this spring by pneumonia. In March GFP staff captured and took blood samples from animals in the Hill City herd. As of today only one of those sheep remains alive.

Nationally states are trying to limit contact between wild sheep and domestic animals that carry life-threatening diseases. Drastic grazing reductions on federal lands and the quarantine of pack goats from some areas have led to court battles as groups fight for their respective interests.

The South Dakota Live Stock Board already does what it can to limit the possibility of domestic elk and deer herds transmitting disease to wild relatives. By adding restrictions such as the requirement for double fence enclosures, they are able to prevent animal-to-animal contact. They also ban the importation of non-native wildlife that could possibly breed with or contaminate existing populations.

As Black Hills bighorns continue to suffer from diseases spread by domestic animals, the Game Fish and Parks will continue gathering data through fields studies like the one conducted by Ty Werdel. This will help them establish policies that expand and invigorate South Dakota’s wild sheep herds. Until new policies prove effective, biologists feel like they are only taking one step forward for every two they slide back.

Still, there is great anticipation for next year’s crop of lambs. For the first time in a century, the sound of bighorn rams colliding in battles for dominance can be heard on the cliffs above Deadwood. 

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