When FWP calls for help, Montana BHA volunteers answer!
On Saturday, Dec. 11th, 24 volunteers from Montana BHA joined forces with 19 other volunteers from Montana Wild Sheep Foundation and members of the public to help FWP biologists survey bighorn sheep in the Highland Mountains near Butte. All of us strapped on our boots, hiked into the backcountry and spent the day glassing for and counting rocky mountain bighorns.
FWP area wildlife biologist Vanna Boccadori met with volunteers the evening before the survey to give details on the five sub herds in the Highlands region. She covered the history of the herds, current populations and discussed the current proposals to help mitigate pneumonia issues. We were all assigned our areas to search and given maps, data sheets and directions.
It was December (read cold and blustery) but thanks to our state-based partners, BHA volunteers had some warm treats to survive the day. Gastro Gnome Meals provided delicious, specially made, single-serving dehydrated meals and Black Coffee Roasting Co’s instant coffee packets kept us sharp.
Collectively, 91 bighorns were counted with a mixture of rams, ewes and – importantly - lambs. Our records were returned to Vanna and will inform FWP on future management, capture and tracking needs, and how best to protect our herds from disease. Initial results suggest some subherds have high recruitment and may have cleared historic pneumonia problems, while one subgroup has extremely low lamb-to-ewe numbers, likely signaling an ongoing battle with disease. This type information is vitally important to overall population management.
FWP is planning a five-year study to address chronic pneumonia problems in the subherds, with two years of baseline surveying, two years of treatment and one year to assess the outcomes. The metric of success for this project will be increased lamb survival and overall increase in herd size. Larger herds allow for more genetic mixing between groups, stronger potential for population expansion into other ranges and increased opportunity for hunters.
Thanks to Gastro Gnome Meals & Black Coffee Roasting Co and all the volunteers who showed up in the name of conservation! We look forward to more citizen-science projects with FWP and we appreciate them reaching out to Montana BHA for help. Keep an eye on your email and our social media accounts for more volunteer opportunities.
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Images provided by Southwest Board Member Scott DeSena and life member DJ Zor.