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The Need for Speed is Slaughtering Sheep

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The Need for Speed is Slaughtering Sheep

Kill rate is "unsustainable" for our area's most watchable heard of Bighorn Sheep

The roughly 25-mile stretch of Highway 200 between Thompson Falls and Plains in Montana, where the Cabinets stretch out to dabble their toes in the Clark Fork River, is arguably one of the most scenic stretches of an already designated scenic highway, the view marred only by a series of high tension power lines.

This portion of the Cabinets, home to the Lolo National Forest, features the 7,149-foot Cube Iron Mountain, the Teepee/Spring Creek roadless area, and one of the most watchable herds of bighorn sheep in the United States.

The Koo-Koo-Sint bighorn sheep viewing site, about six miles east of Thompson Falls, offers a turnout spot where sheep can often be observed as they graze in a nearby field, with interpretive signs describing the natural history of these hardy ungulates, the habitat they need to thrive, and the geology of this part of the Clark Fork River Valley.

Not that a viewing area is absolutely necessary, as the highway itself is a virtual buffet bar for the sheep, and they’re frequently to be found not just alongside it, but loitering on it.

This intersection of a sheep herd habituated to traffic with the highway speeds of vehicles driving has had drastic consequences for the roughly 200 strong Thompson Falls herd, one of the largest herds in Montana. Since 1985, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks have picked up 422 dead sheep on the highway, and this number represents only those sheep that died within sight of the road itself.

“The saving grace is that the sheep are only active in daylight hours,” said Bruce Sterling, a wildlife biologist with MT FW&P.  “If they were active at night, it would be a mass slaughter. In fact, it already is a mass slaughter and if you (added in nighttime activity) those sheep would just be gone.”

November through April marks the main killing time for the Thompson Falls bighorn sheep, in part because the wintertime use of mag chloride on the roads turns the highway into one big, long salt lick for the critters. Then come spring, the heat generated by the asphalt causes the grass on the verge to green up more quickly than grass elsewhere, offering a tasty salad of spring greens to the often hungry sheep, who, depending on the quality of the forage, must eat two to four pounds of food each day in order to remain healthy.

Salt and grass are merely the attractants, however; ‘cause of death for sheep along Highway 200 is related directly to impact with vehicles, oftentimes with vehicles who are simply traveling too fast to react when they come around a curve in the highway at 70 miles per hour and encounter a herd of sheep standing on the road.

“It’s my belief that speed is a major concern,” Bruce said of the situation. “But it’s been very frustrating trying to get people to slow down.”

A major effort toward that desired result was the installation in 2007 of electronic reader boards at spots along the highway reminding drivers that bighorn sheep often populate the road. Funded by the Montana Department of Transportation in conjunction with American Wildlands, a group that works on identifying and conserving critical wildlife movement corridors and habitat connectivity, the Montana Dept. of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, an organization of primarily hunters, the intent of the signage has not lived up to its promise. “Based on the data, they have not worked as well as I wanted,” Bruce explained. In fact, the situation for sheep has gotten even worse, despite the signs: in the four years prior to the signs’ installation, there were an average of 15 sheep killed per year in the November through April period. In the two years since the signs went up, drawing attention to the presence of sheep on the road, and with a few weeks still to go in the count for this year, the average of sheep killed has jumped to 21. “And all this while the population has remained stable,” said Bruce.

The American Wildlands website offers “Since that time [of sign installation] our Priority Linkage Assessment (PLA) data has confirmed that this is indeed a hotspot for bighorn and vehicle collisions, and that the herd cannot sustain the high rate of mortality of the past few years.”

High driving speeds combined with steep, rocky terrain at the road’s edge, where sheep can blend almost to invisibility, seem to be an unsustainable mix. “There are two sections, each about a mile in length, that are very curvy, where collisions are more frequent. So sight distance is an issue, said Sterling. “If the sheep are not moving, they can be difficult to see.” Until, that is, they bound out into the road in front of you, at which time it can be too late to stop. “We’ve found a lot of car parts on those sections of the road.”

Though Sterling adds they’ve also found dead sheep even at the base of the warning signs themselves, so speed of travel is the biggest danger. “The signs are there for a reason,” he said. “If people would just slow down... it might add 15 seconds to their driving time, but it could save some sheep.”

Reducing the posted speed limit through the area does not appear to be an option. “I’ve discussed the speed issue with (MT Dept. of Transportation) and it’s a touchy subject,” Bruce explained. “They have data to show that in situations where drivers slow down, then speed up creates a traffic hazard. Plus, [if they lowered the limit] it would then have to be enforced.

“People just need to slow down, but I’m not aware of anything more than can be done,” he added. “There are people who are familiar with the road who do drive slower through those areas. And there are people familiar with the road who don’t.” Until that happens, the bighorn sheep that engender such enjoyment for viewers will continue to die. “It’s been a very frustrating wildlife experience for me.”


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Author info

Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Montana, wildlife, driving, bighorn sheep, Thompson Falls, scenic highway, Koo-koo-Sint, Hwy. 200, Bruce Sterling

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