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Beautiful Bighorns: Finding North Dakota’s Best Kept Secret Near The Little Missouri National Grassl

Updated: May 10, 2021

Bighorn sheep are some of the rarest animals in North Dakota. Writer Jack Dura finds them near the Little Missouri National Grassland in this guest post. Here’s Jack!

On a chilly, overcast evening, 23 bighorn sheep milled about on a scoria road south of Watford City.A dusty blue Chevy pickup rolled down the road, sending the bighorns scampering off to the south side of the trail where they grouped around on a sage flat under a badlands knob.

These rams, ewes and lambs represent a significant portion and locally famous fraction of North Dakota’s 330 bighorn sheep. The species was extirpated in the state in 1905, but was introduced again with bighorns from Canada in the 1950s.

A bacterial pneumonia pathogen swept through North Dakota’s bighorns in 2014, killing 15 percent of the population while moving north along the Little Missouri River. The die-off was so bad that North Dakota Game and Fish canceled the 2015 bighorn sheep season. However, the state opened its 2016 season with eight tags in three units in western North Dakota after a record number of rams in a summer survey.

The two dozen bighorns living south of Watford City are well known in the area, living near the heavily traveled Long X Bridge. Anyone curious to glimpse these fascinating animals can try a drive down the scoria road to the CCC Campground on the Little Missouri National Grassland, where the bighorns have been seen grazing on hillsides, milling on the road or in an adjacent hay field.

Now in late fall, the rutting season is getting on, evidenced by several rams charging and chasing ewes. Two mature rams occasionally butt heads while the older of the two skulks among the herd, stalking a small ewe with an eye infirmity and a radio collar around her neck.

At least three of the herd have radio collars, tracking their movements for NDGF. The collars also helped biologists locate dead sheep during the pneumonia event.

While cruising the campground road for bighorns, it isn’t unusual to see other drivers pull off for the road too. When the bighorns grazed in a hay field at a recent sunset, four trucks parked on the sides of the skinny red road to watch the bighorns with binoculars and detached rifle scopes.

They are a playful bunch. Two of the ewes hopped atop a hay bale while the older ram prowled below. Other ewes and lambs jumped a barbwire fence as two other rams pursued them. One of the ewes pushed the other off the hay bale, but she landed on all fours.

The herd stayed together that day. Two days earlier, they were split into three groups grazing along the south side of the CCC Campground road—nine lambs and ewes, two pairs of rams and ewes and a group of 10 at the road’s end. They grazed peacefully as gawking travelers parked to watch them. North Dakota’s bighorn sheep are one of the state’s several big game animals, including mule and white-tailed deer, moose, elk and pronghorn.

Preferring the roughest badlands and cooler temperatures, now is the time to try to peek at the herd south of Watford City. And when you find them, just sit and watch.

Jack Dura is a journalist employed by the Bismarck Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @JackFromNoDak. All photos in this post are provided by Jack Dura.

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