HELENA — A plan to relocate bighorn sheep to the Lewis and Clark Caverns area was shot down last week after landowners in the area said they weren’t sufficiently notified of the proposal and opposed it.
It was the first attempt to transplant sheep under Montana’s first-ever Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy, which was adopted in 2010. The discussion at Thursday’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting touched upon a key issue hotly debated during the strategy’s creation: whether an adjacent landowner can have veto power over the move.
“This situation definitely calls to mind the extensive discussions we had when contemplating the bighorn sheep strategic plan over one word,” said Commissioner Ron Moody, who on Friday explained that the word had to do whether FWP “should” or “will” consult neighboring landowners. The final adopted version says that before initiating a transplant, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks “will coordinate and cooperate with local landowners” before moving the wild sheep.
But Terry Murphy, a state senator from Cardwell who represents part of Lewis and Clark County and Jefferson County, also happens to own a large ranch near the caverns, and said he only found out about the proposed move at the last minute.
“I literally never heard of the proposal until Dec. 16 and found my land was listed as a passageway for sheep to move from one side of the highway to the other,” Murphy told the FWP Commission at its meeting on Thursday. “The same kind of proposal came up 15 years ago. We opposed it and it wasn’t done. We are there using the land and trying to make a living on it, not making it a tourist attraction. There is absolute opposition to it on my part.”
FWP originally came to the commissioners in the spring of 2011 with a list of sites that possibly were good bighorn sheep habitat, and in November released a draft Environmental Assessment. The document looked at reintroducing the sheep on 139,373 acres in three adjacent areas in south-central Montana — the Bull Mountains, Doherty Mountain and Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park.
One of the statewide objectives in Montana’s bighorn sheep strategy is to “establish five new viable and huntable populations over the course of the next 10 years and augment existing populations where appropriate.” Relocations typically consist of 20 to 40 bighorns being released for two consecutive winters.
In this case, the sheep possibly would either come from Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island or the Upper Madison drainage, where populations have steadily increased. The EA noted that their presence in the area would have multiple benefits, including wildlife viewing and eventual hunting.