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World's Record - Bighorn Sheep

The new World's Record bighorn sheep was found on Montana's Wild Horse Island and is owned by the state.   


By Clay Brewer, Kevin Hurley, Kurt Alt and Gray Thornton – The Wild Sheep Foundation

Three of the top five Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep recorded by the Boone and Crockett Club over the last three years have come from a single, small area in Montana, the geographic address for this story. We acknowledge up front that this is not a traditional hunting story—in fact, this is not a hunting tale at all, but rather a conservation success story based on a vision, the investment for future generations, and persistence in doing the right thing for Montana’s natural resources. Most importantly, read this as a testament of what can be achieved through strong partnerships; what can be achieved by those willing to work together toward a common goal.


Found between 2015 and 2018, these three winter-killed, pick-up heads were officially scored, entered, and accepted by B&C at 205-2/8, 209, and 216-3/8, a new World’s Record. While not a traditional hunting narrative in itself, Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks’ (MFWP) Wild Horse Island State Park is responsible for countless other hunting stories throughout the great state of Montana and a number of other states. Consistent with the time-revered tradition of B&C, we honor these animals and the habitat in which they spent their lives. In addition, we offer our respect and heartily commend those responsible for restoring and managing bighorn sheep and their habitat on Wild Horse Island.

Located in northwestern Montana, Wild Horse Island sits just off the western shore of Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake west of the Mississippi at approximately 190 square miles. The origin of the island’s name continues to be debated, but the name “Wild Horse Island” first appeared in the 1854 journal of early explorer John Mullan. According to Mullan, a local tribal member swam his horses over to the island to protect them from rival tribes. Wild Horse Island is within the boundaries of the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, which was created under the 1855 Hellgate Treaty. The area became a state park in 1977-78 and was acquired through cooperative efforts of The Nature Conservancy, private landowner Bourke McDonald, and MFWP. Appraised at $3.5 million, the McDonald family donated half the value, with the remaining $1.75 million provided through the government Land and Water Conservation Fund. Today, annual visitation at Wild Horse Island State Park averages between 15,000 to 20,000 people.

Wild Horse Island has yielded some of the largest Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in recorded history. Producing quality animals such as those described above requires a suitable habitat that offers adequate food and water, in addition to a topography that provides important sources of cover for bedding, lambing, and escape terrain. Time and genetics are also two factors in producing such animals. Fortunately, Wild Horse Island provides all of these. Approximately 2,160 acres in size, bighorn numbers on the island are currently estimated at around 130 animals, with an incredible population density estimate of one bighorn sheep per 16.6 acres. Wild Horse Island hosts a score of other wildlife such as mule deer, a variety of birds (such as songbirds, waterfowl, bald eagles, and falcons), a few wild horses, and an occasional mountain lion and grizzly bear.

Understanding the history of bighorn sheep throughout the west and in Montana is vital to understanding why Wild Horse Island is special. The importance of bighorn sheep to Native Americans and early western explorers is well documented. Historically, distribution of bighorn sheep extended southward from central British Columbia and Alberta, Canada to northern Mexico, and from the Pacific eastward to the western areas of the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Texas. Reliable population estimates of bighorn sheep in North America prior to the 1800s are not available, but numbers in the hundreds of thousands have been reported. Following western settlement, numbers declined rapidly and bighorn sheep were extirpated from much of their historic range. Unregulated harvest, disease, forage competition with domestic, feral, or exotic livestock, and human encroachment, which exacerbated an already naturally fragmented distribution, have been implicated in the decline of bighorn sheep throughout the west.

Similar to other western states, Montana could not escape the swift decline in bighorn numbers and population extirpations that occurred in some areas following western settlement. Initial and subsequent efforts focused on protection of wild sheep and their habitat. Hunting laws in the form of regulated harvest and seasonal restrictions or closures were implemented in most U.S. and Canadian jurisdictions, including Montana. The first conservation law in Montana passed in 1869, and in 1872, the hunting season for bighorn sheep and a few other species was closed February 1 to August 15 each year. Later, in 1889, the first state laws set the open season on bighorn sheep from September 15 to December 31. Despite these restrictions, the state-wide bighorn sheep hunting season was eventually closed in 1915. By the 1930s, bighorn sheep had been reduced to small, isolated populations scattered throughout western Montana.

Documenting the status of bighorn sheep through scientific censuses began as early as 1914. While some jurisdictions were still assessing population declines, others, such as Montana, were initiating more aggressive restoration programs. Wild sheep translocations began in 1922 with the capture of 20 bighorns in Alberta, Canada. Twelve were subsequently released on the National Bison Range near Moiese, Montana, and eight animals were released at Custer State Park, South Dakota. However, wildlife agency resources in the form of finances and personnel were severely limited. The scientific basis for informed wildlife management decisions, which we now recognize as one of the seven pillars of the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation, was in its infancy. Wildlife restoration was new and expensive, particularly for animals such as bighorn sheep that were adapted to rugged and often isolated habitats. As a result, early success in restoring bighorns to their former numbers and distribution both outside and inside Montana was limited.

Financial support for wildlife agencies came in 1937 with passage of the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act (the Pittman-Robertson Act), which imposed an 11% federal excise tax on hunting equipment and firearms sold in the U.S. Funds were apportioned to individual states exclusively for the management and restoration of wildlife resources and habitats. About the same time, strong partnerships began to form between wildlife agencies, sportsmen, landowners and others committed to wild sheep and the lands they occupied, providing a critical coalition of support for restoration efforts. Since the initial transplants, 172 separate Montana operations have resulted in the translocation of over 3,000 bighorn sheep including 28 imports from other states to Montana; 2,323 within Montana; and 694 exports from Montana to 8 other western states. Among those was the first in-state translocation to Wild Horse Island, which occurred in 1939 with the translocation of two animals from Montana’s Mission Mountains in Lake County. Additional translocations to Wild Horse Island occurred in 1944, with the movement of six animals from the Sun River herd in Teton County, and concluded in 1987 with the transplant of two animals from Ural-Tweed in Lincoln County. Wild Horse Island continues to serve as one of the primary resources for bighorn sheep reintroductions in Montana and other western states. From a founder population of only 10 animals, 561 total bighorn sheep have been translocated from Wild Horse Island, including to 18 other sites in Montana (433) and to two other western states (73).

In addition to the quality habitat of Wild Horse Island, much of the success of the bighorn sheep program can be attributed to the diversity of partnerships, funding mechanisms, and resource management strategies. Those responsible include MFWP staff, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, volunteers, conservation organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, the Wild Sheep Foundation, and federal agencies including the Natural Resource Conservation Service. Wild Horse Island State Park is managed by the MFWP State Park Division staff, utilizing paid and volunteer personnel, whereas the bighorn sheep program is managed by wildlife professionals of the MFWP Wildlife Division. Funding for management activities is derived from Montana State Parks earned revenue, which includes light vehicle registration fees and state park user fees. Federal aid supports bighorn sheep population monitoring and transplants from the park, which is conducted by Wildlife Division personnel.

The success story of Wild Horse Island continues to benefit wild sheep and hunters in Montana and other western states. We commend the State Park and Wildlife Division staff of MFWP and cooperating partners in doing what is best for the resource and the habitat in which they live.

The three Wild Horse Island bighorn sheep recognized in the 30th Big Game Awards Program are owned by the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks and received Certificates of Merit.

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Chronicles of Sheep Hunting and Legendary Sheep Hunters

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