Biologists say hunting Jackson bighorns could help the herd

The Gros Ventre sheep are in the worst conditions researchers have ever seen, yet they’re proposing more hunting tags.
One female bighorn sheep takes off through the snow, after researchers caught her by helicopter and monitored her health in a December check-up. (Emily Cohen/KHOL)

by | Apr 14, 2023 | Environment

The herd of bighorn sheep that dwells in the Gros Ventre Range are one of the many local species struggling this year amid harsh winter conditions. 

One solution, according to wildlife biologists? Hunting more of them.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” said Aly Courtemanch, with the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.

Courtemanch said these bighorns are in the worst shape researchers have ever seen. Winter surveys revealed the lowest body fat percentage on record for the herd at around 5%.

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But still, the population is getting too big for the habitat to support. 

“They’re telling us that there are too many sheep,” Courtemanch said.

A potential die-off

This herd is different from the high-altitude sheep that traverse cliffs in the Tetons, which face struggles such as a shrinking habitat.

The Gros Ventre sheep, on the other hand, largely struggle from illness. The herd is prone to pneumonia, especially when they’re dealing with other stressors such as competition for food. 

Biologists predict the herd has around 500 sheep — the threshold where die-offs have happened in the past.

That’s why, according to Game & Fish’s Mark Gocke, the agency is proposing more hunting tags for the female sheep. 

“We don’t want major decreases [in the population],” he said. “We just want to bring it down incrementally a little bit at a time with the hunting seasons that we’re proposing.”

Hunting changes

The department is recommending nearly doubling the number of hunting tags for female sheep – from 16 to 30 – to bring down the population. 

It’s only the second year these kinds of tags have been issued. Last year, hunters harvested only seven of the 16 potential ewes. Gocke said the department is raising the number of tags “to compensate for lower success rates.”

The move to increase tags contrasts with how the department is addressing other struggling wildlife in the region, like mule deer and pronghorn. It’s proposing lowering the number of those hunting tags to help the herds thrive. 

A commission will meet next week on Tuesday, April 18 to finalize decisions about this year’s hunting season. Members of the public can also participate via Zoom.

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About Hanna Merzbach

Hanna is KHOL's senior reporter and managing editor. A lot of her work focuses on housing and local politics, but also women's health — and whatever else she finds interesting. You can hear her reporting around the country and region on NPR, Wyoming Public Radio and community radio stations around the west. She hails from Bend, Oregon, where she reported for outlets such as the Atlantic, High Country News and Oregon Public Broadcasting. In her free time, you can find Hanna scaling rock walls or adventuring in the mountains.

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