The appearance of blindfolded bighorn sheep dangling from the belly of a helicopter and being ferried across Flathead Lake has become a peculiar yet common occurrence in the late winter.
Last week the curious ritual took place for the first time in two years. State and tribal agencies captured 61 sheep, including several mature rams weighing nearly 200 pounds and bearing immense, curling horns, from Wild Horse Island off the western shore.
The relocations, occurring every year or two, are part of a twofold conservation strategy. The 2,160-acre island is a natural refuge that nurtures a healthy population of sheep. The latest survey conducted last month found as many as 155, well above the island’s carrying capacity of roughly 100, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Yet the island’s abundant supply of massive rams stands in stark contrast to other parts of the Western U.S., where bighorn populations are historically suffering from disease outbreaks and disappearing habitat. Wild Horse Island is considered a vital breeding ground that can supplement other herds across the West, wildlife officials say.
Beginning in the cold, early hours of Feb. 26, a private helicopter crew that specializes in wildlife captures began wrangling three to five animals at a time on the island and airlifting them a few minutes away to Big Arm State Park. The chopper delicately placed the nylon bags that held each sheep onto the ground, handing over the calm cargo to biologists with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The animals were not sedated during the transfer and remained calm, for the most part, throughout the process.
One ram escaped while crews were putting it in the trailer and another was injured during capture and was euthanized. The CSKT will harvest the meat for local food banks.
The biologists performed health tests and took samples to check the species’ condition, including checking for pneumonia complex diseases that are plaguing other sheep populations across the country. Then after a few minutes, they were individually carried into a horse trailer and untied, set to be transported to another range.
This latest group stayed in-state, going to the Kootenai Wildlife Management Area near Libby, which received 26 rams and six ewes, and Berray Mountain in the Bull River drainage north of Noxon, which got 11 rams, 15 ewes and one male lamb.
“It’s a pretty unique project and operation,” said Bruce Sterling, FWP area biologist in Thompson Falls who leads the capture-relocation operation.
The island, described as an idyllic wildlife paradise for its lack of predators, flourishing grasslands and isolated forest of old growth Ponderosa pine, has fostered a diverse population of wildlife, including six horses, bands of mule deer and the sheep.
The island’s namesake is rooted in the early era before white settlers arrived in the valley, when Montana Indian tribes swam ponies to the safe haven to avoid being stolen by other tribes.
As for the sheep, the story goes that Louis Penwell planted the first bighorns on the island in the 1930s, and the herd ballooned immediately thanks to ideal conditions as a protected sanctuary with plenty of food sources. At one point it was reported to be the largest unfenced herd in the U.S.
R. Bourke MacDonald, a former Butte lumberman, bought the island from timber heirs in 1961 for $240,000. He quickly began rallying support to preserve its wild identity and roaming herds, particularly from the University of Montana. He developed a program that would allow public access amid private development, including several properties that existed.
Seeing the skyrocketing value of lakefront real estate as a threat to Wild Horse Island, MacDonald’s family brokered a deal with the state of Montana to protect unique natural environment in perpetuity.
MacDonald’s family offered to sell the island to the state for $2 million, well below the appraised value of $3.5 million. In the spring of 1977, the Montana Legislature authorized the purchase of Wild Horse Island with the help of the Nature Conservancy, a private nonprofit group that preserves wild places for transfer to federal, state or local agencies.
Today the island is managed as a primitive area, meaning very little development beyond trail maintenance can occur.
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 on site.
“That was part of what he wanted to do, was to preserve it instead of selling off lots to private owners,” said Jerry Sawyer, who has been the state park manager at Wild Horse Island for 22 years.
“We were able to purchase parcels at a time and the Nature Conservancy fronted that. That was the dream of (MacDonald) to do that and preserve it as a recreational and wildlife site.”
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