Seven bighorn sheep were killed in west-central Montana in the past week after being struck by vehicles, according to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Five of those sheep died after two collisions along Montana Highway 200 just east of Bonner, according to the agency. No human injuries were reported, but wildlife biologist Vickie Edwards said the agency wants to remind motorists the tall grasses along parts of the highway are habitat for the animals.
“These lambs are tucked in there, and they’re playful, so they’re bounding all over the place, and the next thing you know, they’re jumping out on the highway,” Edwards said.
Drivers should watch for bighorn sheep in the following areas, according to Fish, Wildlife and Parks:
• East Fork of the Bitterroot.
• U.S. Highway 93 south of Darby.
• Skalkaho Road.
• Montana Highway 1 near Anaconda.
• Petty Creek Road.
• Highway 200 along the Blackfoot River and Rock Creek.
In recent years, bighorn sheep “die-offs” have taken place in several areas of FWP’s Region 2, including in the Bonner area after an outbreak of pneumonia in 2009 and 2010, Edwards said. She said yearling lambs look strong this year, a good sign for the band, but a couple of lactating ewes were killed in the recent wrecks out of the herd that numbers an estimated 30 sheep.
“These highway mortalities are definitely taking a hit on that Bonner population,” Edwards said.
A couple of signs are posted on either side of Highway 200 to warn people about the bighorn, and this week, the Montana Department of Transportation plans to add a couple larger “variable messaging signs” to the road to alert motorists, said spokeswoman Lori Ryan. She said those signs are typically in use on fires and construction zones.
“They’re going to be moving those signs up tomorrow (Friday) morning, and those signs will be in addition to those permanent signs,” Ryan said.
The Department of Transportation also is considering adding solar-powered beacons to top the permanent signs, she said.
A few factors are contributing to the wrecks, said Edwards.
For one thing, she said, the band of yearlings, young lambs, ewes and rams start pushing each other around as they play and jockey for hierarchy. Some can land in front of traffic as a result of being pushed, and others aren’t yet wary of cars and trucks.
“They will walk out in front of you, unfortunately,” Edwards said.
Also, she said, the sheep are being drawn to remnant salt on the highway, and they may be seeking water this time of year, too. Plus, they’re on the move near a stretch of road that’s a blind curve for motorists heading eastbound toward the Blackfoot Trading Post.
In the past, FWP officials tried to scare the sheep into staying off the highway by shooting noisy “cracker shells” toward the ground, Edwards said. The negative stimulus worked, she said, but only for a short time.
In other areas, highway overpasses and underpasses have been successful, but Edwards said those bridges are costly. Plus, the sheep on Highway 200 cross along nearly three miles of the road, and she said it would be difficult to identify a place where a single passage would be successful in that stretch.
FWP’s concern is to keep both sheep and people safe, Edwards said. In addition to the five sheep killed near Bonner, the tally of sheep deaths in the past week includes one in lower Rock Creek and one on Highway 93 near the East Fork of the Bitterroot.
“We did not have to dispatch any sheep, so they did die on impact,” Edwards said.