CONNER - Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are considering transplanting a new herd of bighorn sheep into the Warm Springs drainage south of Conner.
"It's a very big drainage with a small elk and mule deer population," said FWP Bitterroot biologist Craig Jourdonnais. "It also has a lot of good sheep habitat that doesn't have any sheep."
Currently, there are herds of bighorn sheep on both sides of the Warm Springs drainage in the east and west forks of the Bitterroot.
"Locals tell me they see sheep in Warm Springs occasionally, but they're not there all the time," Jourdonnais said.
The initial proposal calls for transplanting up to 60 bighorns in the drainage over a one- or two-year period of time. The animals could be moved as early as next winter.
"We wouldn't try to build a mega-population in there," Jourdonnais said. "We're looking at maybe 80 to provide some wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities over time."
There are still a number of questions that have to be answered before the reintroduction could occur.
"It's important that people know that no decision has been made at this point," he said.
Over the next few weeks, Jourdonnais will meet with local landowners and talk with others interested in the project.
"I will be very active in contacting landowners in the area," he said. "I'm going to literally try to go door to door in that area."
One point of discussion will be domestic sheep.
Bighorn sheep are susceptible to pathogens carried by domestic sheep. Large die-offs of wild sheep have been traced back to contact with domestics.
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"We would have to have some kind of agreement that domestic sheep would not be in the area before we could move forward," he said. "It would probably spell doom to this project if we can't get that."
There don't appear to be any active livestock operations in the drainage, Jourdonnais said.
Before any transplant operation begins, the state will take a hard look at the health of the bighorns in the East Fork herd, which experienced a disease outbreak in 2009.
An aggressive culling of sick animals slowed the spread of the disease and may have opened the door for a quick recovery. In other bighorn die-offs, biologists noted that lamb production in the following years lagged dramatically.
Last summer and fall, Jourdonnais found lamb numbers in the low 30s per 100 ewes. That number dropped to about 15 lambs per 100 ewes this spring.
"We didn't lose them all," he said. "Obviously, there was probably some predation impact. It's a good sign that we had as many lambs as we did, but it's not quite a clean bill of health."
If the reintroduction into Warm Springs Creek is approved, Jourdonnais said he will take some samples from live sheep in the East Fork to see if they continue to carry the pathogen responsible for the disease outbreak before moving forward.
"If we see that those organisms are present that are related to the pneumonia die-off, we could call the transplant off," he said. "It won't be hard and fast. We're going to be diligent."
The bighorn sheep for transplant could come from either Wild Horse Island at Flathead Lake or from the Madison-Slide Inn area.
People interested in commenting on the proposal can write FWP's Region 2 office in Missoula, 3201 Spurgin Road, Missoula, MT 59804, or email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 542-5500.
Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or email@example.com.