WILD HORSE ISLAND — Recent lightning strikes killed eight bighorn rams on Wild Horse Island recently, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials who visited the island Monday to investigate a report from TIP-MONT (Turn in Poachers Montana).
According to Fish, Wildlife and Parks communication and education program manager John Fraley, someone had seen one of the dead sheep, which had rolled down hill. The reporting party had no idea how the sheep might have died, but as soon as the agency got news of the sighting, they very quickly responded.
“Normally we hear about violations, but this is an example of where we were alerted to a natural occurrence,” Fraley said. “That 1-800-TIP-MONT has been a very helpful program for us.”
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Capt. Lee Anderson, who was one of the first on the scene, said, “It was evident that the lightning struck a large Ponderosa pine tree and the group of sheep, which were bedded down around it. The hooves and legs on several sheep were burned.”
Six of the sheep were found in a 15-foot circle around the tree, while two were a short distance away. Anderson said there were fresh burn marks in the tree with pieces of bark blown up to 75 feet from its base. There was some decomposition of the sheep carcasses, so the deadly strike likely occurred within the last week to 10 days. The tree also showed marks from previous lightning strikes.
“Those sheep were just in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Fraley said.
According to wildlife manager Jim Williams, bighorns often congregate at high rocky places, making them vulnerable to strikes. Fraley added that lethal lightning strikes on groups of bighorn sheep are not unheard of, and he has read about similar incidences occurring in Nevada and Yellowstone National Park.
“It’s not unheard of,” he said. “But I wouldn’t say it’s common.”
The rams’ horns indicated that the animals ranged from 3-1/2 to 8-1/2 years of age. This death of this particular “bachelor group” is an unfortunate event, Williams said, but it will have no significant effect on the island’s bighorn population, which has reached approximately 200 animals and is currently above the habitat’s carrying capacity.
Fraley said that while the tragedy won’t hurt the island’s herd, it was not exactly helpful, either.
“We could have transplanted those animals to another population that needed them,” he said, as many herds nation-wide have used the Wild Horse Island stock for either starting or enhancing herds.
“The sheep do really well there and they reproduce well,” he said. “There is always a steady flow of animals on the island.”
About 40 bighorn sheep were relocated from Wild Horse Island this spring in an effort to control the herd’s population, and more relocations are planned for the up coming year, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks press release said.