Sheep and lamb numbers in Montana and Wyoming are up for the first time in years, agriculture officials said Monday.
The inventory in Montana, as of Jan. 1, was 305,000 sheep and lambs, according to the Montana Agricultural Statistics Service.
That is 5,000 more than a year ago and the first increase in inventory since 1991, when there were 683,000 sheep and lambs, the service said.
The inventory in Wyoming was 450,000 sheep and lambs, 20,000 more animals than a year ago and the first increase in numbers since 1997, when there were 720,000 head, the Wyoming Statistical Office said.
However, the inventory in both states is still below the 2003 number, the agencies said.
Nationwide, the sheep and lamb inventory was 6.14 million head, up from about 6.11 million animals a year ago but also lower than two years ago, the agencies said, noting a leveling off in inventory and slight rise for the first time since 1990.
Peggy Stringer, director of the Montana agency, described the increase in Montana as a "drop in the bucket."
But Bob Gilbert, a spokesman for the Montana Wool Growers Association, said the numbers could have been expected given the drought conditions that have existed in parts of the state.
Also on Monday, voting began on a national lamb checkoff. The industry will decide through the referendum whether to make mandatory a fee it has paid since 2002 on sheep and lambs sold or purchased for slaughter.
The voting comes at a time when checkoff programs for other commodities are being challenged as unconstitutional.
Supporters say the lamb checkoff, which helps fund promotional efforts, is important to the industry's growth.
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