Up to 60 bighorn sheep, including several mature rams weighing nearly 200 pounds, were airlifted off Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island this week as part of a relocation effort involving state and tribal wildlife and parks managers.
A private helicopter crew that specializes in animal captures wrangled three to five sheep at a time on the island and flew the dangling, blindfolded animals to Big Arm State Park, where biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes performed health tests. The animals were not sedated during the transfer and remained calm, for the most part, throughout the process. Then the sheep were transported off site, either to the southern Cabinet Mountains or Kootenai Falls Wildlife Management Area.
Every year or two, wildlife managers relocate several bighorn sheep off the island to manage the population, which grows quickly due to a lack of predation and abundant food sources.
Earlier this month, officials counted a minimum of 155 sheep, which is significantly above the island’s carrying capacity, according to FWP.
The forested isle off the west shore of Flathead Lake is home to 2,160 acres of old growth Ponderosa pine, trail labyrinths and families of bighorn sheep, mule deer and, yes, wild horses.
Staff with Montana State Parks, which manages the island as a popular public recreation destination, has been working for the past several years to conserve the shortgrass prairie habitat that is important to wild sheep and other wildlife species.
FWP has utilized the population as a nursery herd and several new sheep populations have been initiated or augmented across the state using Wild Horse Island sheep over the years.
Read next week’s Beacon for a detailed story on the relocation effort.
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