BISMARCK, N.D. (KXNET) — The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has released the results of 2022’s bighorn sheep survey — in which it was discovered that the state is seeing record growth in the population, even when compared to a previous record-breaking year beforehand.

During the sheep study, biologists from the Game and Fish Department count and classify all bighorn sheep late into the summer of the year, and then recount the number of lambs added in the following March in order to determine the overall population. In the 2022 survey, which was completed in March, the Department noted that there was a record number of sheep in western North Dakota — a total of 347, with a population consisting of 96 rams, 206 ewes, and 45 lambs. This is a 4% increase from the record number noted in 2021 (335 bighorn sheep), as well as a 15% increase above the five-year average of the population.

“We were encouraged to see the count of adult rams down just slightly from last year, and adult ewes were at record numbers,” noted Game and Fish biologist Brett Wiedmann in a press release. “Unfortunately, following a record summer count of lambs, winter survival was only 54%, the lowest level on record and well below the long-term average. The lamb recruitment rate was also near a record low. Nearly six months of harsh winter conditions was the likely cause of poor winter survival of lambs.”

Of all sheep populations, the largest increase was noted to have taken place in the group originally translocated from Montana to the Fort Berthold Reservation in 2020. Over the past year, their numbers have tripled.

In total, there are currently roughly 470 bighorn sheep in the state among all the populations managed by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, the National Park Service, and the Three Affiliated Tribes Fish and Wildlife Division. Wiedmann states that while the next major benchmark on the population (500 bighorns) seemed like a major challenge a short time ago, it is rapidly becoming closer to an achievable goal.

“Considering how severe last winter was, we were very encouraged by the results of the 2022 survey,” said Wiedmann.

Game and Fish has stated that there may be a bighorn sheep hunting season scheduled to open later in the year. However, the status of this season is unconfirmed and will be officially determined on September 1 after the summer population survey.