KALISPELL - A recent lightning strike killed eight bighorn sheep - all rams - on Flathead Lake's popular Wildhorse Island.
"It was evident that the lightning struck a large Ponderosa pine tree and the group of sheep, which were bedded down around it," said Lee Anderson, warden captain at the Kalispell offices of the state Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department.
"The hooves and legs on several sheep were burned," Anderson said.
Agency staff first received a report of the dead sheep from a private tipster, then visited the island Monday to investigate. Biologists believe the sheep were killed in the last week to 10 days, as evening storms rolled through the Flathead.
Six of the rams were found in a 15-foot circle around the tree, with two others located a short distance away. Anderson said the tree was freshly scorched, with bits of bark blown some 75 feet from the trunk.
The tree also showed evidence of older lightning strikes.
"Bighorns often congregate at high, rocky places making them vulnerable to strikes," said Jim Williams, wildlife manager at FWP. In fact, he said, lethal lightning strikes among groups of sheep are not unheard of.
Williams described the rams killed as a "bachelor group," and added that their deaths, while unfortunate, will not have any significant impact on the island's overall bighorn population of some 200 animals. Using their horns to age them, Williams estimated individuals in the group ranged from three to eight years old.
Wildhorse Island is one of the largest inland islands west of the Great Lakes, and rises up from Flathead Lake to cover some 2,100 acres. It is managed as a primitive state park, and the protected bighorns there are regularly culled to augment herds in other areas.
The sheep population there remains greater than the island can support, and this spring about 40 sheep were moved out to other areas. More relocations are planned for the coming year.