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Sheep waiting for release

Bighorn sheep from the Missouri Breaks in northern Montana await release into the East Pioneer Mountains near Melrose on Saturday.

MELROSE – State officials released nine bighorn sheep ewes into the East Pioneer Mountains near Melrose on Saturday as part of a statewide relocation program.

The sheep were taken from the Missouri Breaks north of Winifred and added to part of an existing herd in the Pioneers. The release area is the Maiden Rock Fishing Access Site on the Big Hole River.

“We don’t want an overabundance of sheep,” said Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokeswoman Andrea Jones in Bozeman.

Overpopulation can stress habitats and increase the chance of die-offs among the disease-prone animals.

Initially, biologists overseeing the program recommended that the sheep be relocated to South Dakota, saying that it is too difficult to find suitable habitat in Montana. A citizen commission nixed that plan, saying that the animals should stay in Montana. The recent release was approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in November. Area landowners were contacted about the release, according to FWP.

The goal is to eventually relocate up to 50 sheep from the Missouri Breaks to various locations around the state.

But integrating herds can be a challenge.

“We’ve had unsuccessful transplants,” Jones said. “We wanted to be very cautious.”

Experts will observe the transition and use that information when planning further relocation. All of the sheep were fitted with radio collars to help monitoring.

Transplanting excess sheep out of state in the past was a somewhat routine practice. That changed in 2009 following hunter complaints when 60 sheep were transplanted to Utah.

Melrose is about 35 miles southwest of Butte.

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