Pending New World's Record Bighorn Sheep Illustrates Conservation Success

Bighorn Sheep, died of natural causes, photo courtesy of B&C.

by Boone and Crockett Club

A ram that died of natural causes is the pending new World's Record bighorn sheep. The Boone and Crockett Club today confirmed the official entry score of 216-3/8 points B&C.

The nine-year-old ram lived his entire life on Wild Horse Island, a state park located in Northwest Montana's Flathead Lake. The ram was officially scored at the Club's national headquarters in Missoula, Montana.

The current No. 1 ram was hit by a vehicle on an Alberta highway in the Canadian Rockies in 2010 and has a final score of 209-4/8. This ram edged out the then World's Record, a hunter-taken ram from near Luscar Mountain, Alberta, in 2000 that scores 208-3/8.

"Any animal making our minimum score is a testament to great habitat but potentially the largest sheep ever is something special," said Justin Spring, the Club's director of Big Game Records. "It's significant to sportsmen, wildlife managers, conservationists and anyone who appreciates what nature is capable of. The fact that this iconic species that was once on the brink of extinction exists at all is remarkable. Combine this with the fact that today's wild sheep face ever present human encroachment, disease issues, and very specific habitat requirements, yet are thriving in much of today's West on our public lands; that is conservation in action. Considering we have had the three largest rams in recorded history hold the number-one spot since 2000, I would say the North American model is working."

The 2,160-acre Wild Horse Island was in private ownership until it became a state park in 1979. This was made possible through a collaboration using the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a conservation easement through the Nature Conservancy, the landowner, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Three bighorn sheep were initially transplanted to the island in the late 1940s from a native population of sheep from the Sun River herd found along Montana's Rocky Mountain Front.

The pending world-record ram was found dead of natural causes by FWP officials in the fall of 2016 and kept in storage with two other rams found that year, which have since also been officially scored, entered and accepted by B&C at 205-2/8 and 209-0/8.

"This ram along with three other 200-inch sheep prove that Wild Horse Island State Park has found what is needed when analyzing sheep habitat requirements," added Spring. "Habitat is king for our wild sheep and other wildlife. When it comes to big game, Boone and Crockett score is a measurement of quality habitat, especially in sheep."

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist have determined that the appropriate carrying capacity for the sheep habitat on Wild Horse Island is between 100 and 120 animals. Over the years, Wild Horse bighorns have consequently been a nursery herd for re-establishing sheep populations to many of their historic ranges across the West. In total over 400 rams, ewes, and lambs have been translocated to other tribal lands and states like Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the Dakotas.

"Wild Horse Island is a unique state park that provides world-class wildlife viewing for the public. We're devoted to preserving this special place, and we look forward to working with conservation partners to perpetuate critical habitat work that maintains this incredible bighorn sheep herd," said David Landstrom, State Parks manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 1.

Managing the island's bighorn sheep population and their habitat has not been without its challenges. Being a state park, no hunting is allowed, therefore the funding that sportsmen pay in licenses, permits and federal excise taxes are unavailable. The island also has a limited number of homes along its shoreline, so fire suppression is a top priority.

"What makes this such an incredible habitat for wild sheep is the Palouse prairie native bunch grass," said Landstrom. "As we all know, trees and brush grow outcompeting these native grasses the sheep depend on. Without natural fires, we have to resort to mechanized habitat stimulation and removal of brush and trees. This costs money and we have to rely on creative funding sources and donations to get the job done. It's a challenge our people freely accept, especially when we can see results like this special animal, and share this special place with people."

Wild Horse Island is a famous hiking and wildlife photography destination open to the public.

"The Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF), now based in Bozeman, Montana is thrilled that our headquarters state is home to the potential World Record bighorn sheep," stated Gray N. Thornton, WSF's president and CEO. "Montana is producing many of the largest bighorns anywhere. Another ram rumored to score 208-3/8 was taken by a young resident on a draw tag this past fall potentially equaling the current hunter record and several additional accepted and potential 200-inch rams being added to the records yearly. It is a testament to the quality of Montana's habitat and the hard work of the professionals at Fish Wildlife and Parks and the many, many volunteers from numerous wild sheep and other advocacy organizations who spend limitless energy raising funds for Montana bighorn restoration and countless hours towards on the ground work. We all have immense pride in this Montana born and raised ram."

The ram's next step is to be certified as a new World's Record. This will be done by a special panel of senior B&C official measures who will verify all the ram's entry score measurements. The panel is scheduled to convene in late February at the Wild Sheep Foundation's World Headquarters.