- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 18, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - The number of bighorn lambs in North Dakota’s Badlands is at its lowest point on record, possibly threatening the long-term future of bighorn hunting in a state where thousands of hunters apply for only a handful of once-in-a-lifetime licenses.

Bacterial pneumonia killed dozens of animals in the herd in 2014, and North Dakota canceled its fall bighorn hunting season in 2015 for the first time in more than three decades. The state Game and Fish Department reinstated hunting last year after deaths tapered off, and a season this fall appears likely unless there are a large number of summer deaths of adult rams, which hunters seek because of their trophy horns.

Game and Fish biologists counted a record 274 adult rams and ewes during a recently concluded spring population survey, and it would take “significant loss” for officials to call off this year’s season, according to state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams. However, biologists also counted a record-low 22 lambs - a drop of 50 percent from last spring - which big game biologist Brett Wiedmann called “discouraging.”

This year’s lamb winter survival rate and lamb recruitment rate - the number accepted into the general population - also were record lows. Records date to the early 1970s.

“Next year’s survey will be important in determining if the state’s population continues to recover from the disease outbreak, or if the pathogens are likely to persist and cause a long-term population decline,” Wiedmann said.

Poor lamb survival is typical in sheep populations that have been exposed to pneumonia, and the effects can last many years, according to Wiedmann. Williams said lamb crops in coming years will be “critical” to bighorn hunting seasons.

“Without that (lamb) recruitment into the population, things could get tighter in the future,” he said. “It’s going to be something we closely watch.”

Game and Fish won’t finalize a 2017 hunting season until after a summer sheep population survey. The state typically doles out only about half a dozen of the highly desired licenses. More than 10,000 hunters applied last year for eight licenses.

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

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