POLSON — Montana’s Wild Horse Island State Park will soon be known as home to the world’s largest bighorn ram.
Last week, officials at the Boone & Crockett Club’s headquarters in Missoula, Montana, measured the horns of the 9-year-old ram that died of natural causes in 2016. Its score of 216-3/8s points shattered the old record by nearly seven inches.
The current world-ram was killed by a vehicle in 2010 in Alberta. Its score was 209-4/8.
The record won’t be official until a special panel of Boone and Crockett officials convenes to verify the measurement in late February at the Wild Sheep Foundation’s World Headquarters, but the recent announcement already has the world of sheep fanatics buzzing.
The ram’s skull and horns weigh in at 48 pounds. For a bighorn to be considered large, its horns need to measure 40 inches around the curl. This ram measured nearly 50 inches.
Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks Region 1 State Parks Manager David Landstrom is certain the record will hold.
“From what we saw from those measurements, it bests the world record by nearly 7 inches,” Landstrom said. “The final score was simply colossal. Typically records fall in increments of an inch. This one fell by more than half a foot. It was really fun to be part of that. I think everyone felt that way.”
The bighorn sheep’s skull was retrieved from the island in November 2016 by FWP officials and placed in a freezer until a couple of months ago when it was sent over to a local taxidermist to be cleaned.
Boone & Crockett requires a 60-day period for the skull and horns to dry before being measured. That measurement happened Wednesday.
While there’s a great deal of excitement about the record, Landstrom said the real story is of a family’s gift to Montana and the conservation work that’s followed by number of different entities.
“While this record is a product of genetics and good luck, it’s also a product of good habitat,” he said. “The state park obviously has good wildlife habitat, and that’s not by accident. We’re working really hard to maintain habitat that’s not only good for sheep, but also for mule deer and the handful of horses that are there.”
Bighorn sheep aren’t native to the 2,000-acre island that reportedly got its name from Kootenai Indians using it to keep their horses safe there from raiding Blackfeet.
The first record of bighorn sheep on the island dates back to 1939 when a ram and a ewe were ferried across the water to its shore. Landstrom said no one knows for certain if they lived or died. In 1947, two rams and two ewes from the Rocky Mountain Front’s Sun River herd were released on the island.
“Those clearly did prosper,” he said. “And so did the 15 head of mule deer that were planted in 1940 from the Bison Range.”
The island was privately owned until the late 1970s when Bourke McDonald and his family worked with FWP and the Nature Conservancy to help create the state park. The Nature Conservancy provided the bridge funding that gave the state time to tap into federal Land and Water Conservation funds to buy the island.
Obtaining the federal funding required the state to come up with a match, which Landstrom said was provided by the McDonald family when it donated half the appraised value of the land to the state.
“It was an amazing gift that the family gave to us all,” he said. “Today, we estimate that between 15,000 and 19,000 people visit the island each year. The bighorn sheep have become a huge attraction.”
The bighorn sheep herd is kept at somewhere between 100 and 125 animals. Over the years, more than 400 have been captured and relocated to supplement bighorn herds in Montana and other states.
Maintaining the grasslands that make that all possible is a challenge.
“Wild Horse Island is a classic short grass prairie habitat,” Landstrom said. “Those fescue-based grasses work really well for sheep and deer habitat.”
But those important grasslands are threatened by encroachment from the Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir that also grow on the island. In a natural setting, those trees would be kept at bay by periodic fire.
“Currently we literally go in there and mechanically remove thousands and thousands of seedlings and larger trees in an effort to protect those grasslands,” Landstrom said. “It’s extremely labor intensive.”
So far, about 300 acres of the worst of the encroachment have been treated. Most of that work has been paid for through a variety of grants.
“This is a state park with a really, really skeletal budget,” he said. “We apply for every single grant that comes our way.”
Those efforts are paying off for the island’s bighorn sheep herd.
In the last three or four years, Wild Horse Island has produced three of the top 10 largest rams on the record books.
“While the 216 is otherworldly, another ram we just measured ranks right up there with the second or third largest in the world,” he said. “At this moment, that island has produced at least two of the top three bighorn sheep in the world. It’s just been an impressive class of rams that have come out of there in the last few years.”