- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 8, 2016

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Bighorn sheep hunting is likely to resume in North Dakota later this year, after the season was called off in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades due to disease in the western Badlands herd.

The state Game and Fish Department this week announced a tentative fall season, with a final decision to come after a sheep population study in the summer.

Bacterial pneumonia killed about three dozen sheep in 2014 and re-emerged last summer, killing another handful of animals.

“We lost one here about a month ago, and we expect there will still be some die-offs that will occur here and there,” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said. “We just hope that it won’t be in higher amounts like it was in the earlier phase.”

Game and Fish officials typically decide in February whether there will be a fall sheep hunt, then hold a license lottery. There will be no lottery this year until a final decision on whether to hold a season is made around Sept. 1.

The agency in the meantime will accept license applications from hunters. If a season is not held, hunters’ application fees will not be refunded. Resident hunters pay $5 and out-of-state hunters pay $100.

“We want to be very clear that while we feel good about the prospects of having a season … we can’t say for 100 percent certain that we will,” Williams said.

The bighorn population managed by the state is not large - last year’s survey counted about 300 animals. The state typically issues only a handful of hunting licenses, and at least 10,000 hunters apply for one each year. Hunters can receive only one sheep license in their lifetime, even if they fail to bag a ram during that single season.

The Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation typically auctions one of the North Dakota bighorn licenses each year to raise money for sheep management. The foundation is going ahead with this year’s auction later this month, but the money will be returned to the high bidder if there is no season, Williams said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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