MEDORA, N.D. (AP) — The bighorn sheep population in North Dakota has increased to its second-highest level on record, but hunting licenses still will not increase in the near future.
The state Game and Fish Department's annual March sheep survey in the Badlands found 297 bighorns, up 5 percent from last year. The count does not include about 30 bighorns in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is under federal management.
"Nearly all of the lambs we counted during last summer's survey survived the winter," Big Game Biologist Brett Wiedmann said.
A record number of 316 bighorns were counted in 2008, but three harsh winters followed. Wiedmann said this year's bumper crop of lambs indicates a healthy population, but that will not be reflected in increased hunting licenses for several years because the number of rams remains much lower than it was in 2008.
"Consequently, we'll likely have to continue to be conservative with hunting pressure for a few years, but the future certainly looks promising," Wiedmann said. "Adult mortality was also low last winter, so we expect another good crop of lambs to begin hitting the ground within a couple of weeks."
Game and Fish has issued four bighorn sheep licenses for this year, the same as in 2012. Three were issued through a lottery drawing and a fourth was auctioned off to raise money for sheep management.
This year's auction, held in March at the annual meeting in Minnesota of the Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation, raised a record $75,000 — beating the previous record of $50,000 in 2007, according to Game and Fish.
North Dakota's annual auction license allows the winning bidder the rare chance to pursue a bighorn sheep on a self-guided hunt. Since 1986, more than $1 million has been raised through the program.