BOZEMAN – Carson Butler and Jesse DeVoe once sat still as stones while bighorn sheep grazed within 20 feet of them for an hour. Another time, DeVoe watched a golden eagle screaming from the sky as though it planned to scare a bighorn lamb off a cliff.
“It was an incredible way to spend three summers,” said Butler, who was a technician on a Montana State University team gathering information about competition between bighorn sheep and mountain goats at the north edge of Yellowstone National Park for DeVoe’s thesis research.
Now earning his doctorate in Fish and Wildlife Biology, Butler will use his expertise on a massive new study to understand why the number of bighorn sheep is so low in Montana. The $1.2 million, six-year collaborative research project will investigate the complex issue from all angles and levels, ranging from the molecular to the ecosystem, said MSU ecologist Bob Garrott. The goal is to provide the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks with the information it needs to enhance bighorn sheep conservation and management in Montana.
Four faculty members across two MSU colleges, two departments and multiple disciplines are involved in the study, said Garrott who is heading the project with MSU ecologist Jay Rotella. Working with them will be FWP researcher and former MSU graduate student Kelly Proffitt and approximately 20 other FWP biologists. Other partners will include MSU students, everyday Montanans and members of sportsmen’s groups.
“It’s a really great collaboration addressing important issues to Montanans,” Garrott said. “It’s really helping us meet our land-grant mission.”
Garrott and Rotella are professors in the Department of Ecology in MSU’s College of Letters and Science and already work together on a long-term ecological study of Weddell seals in Antarctica. Other MSU faculty at the core of the project are Jim Berardinelli and Jennifer Thomson in the Department of Animal and Range Sciences in the College of Agriculture. Professor Berardinelli, a long-time collaborator with Garrott, specializes in reproductive and metabolic physiology. Thomson, an assistant professor, focuses on genetics and animal genomics.
“It takes a team of people from a lot of disciplines,” Rotella said.
Not sure why bighorn sheep haven’t recovered like other Montana species did after they were nearly wiped out 80 years ago, Garrott said pneumonia is one factor, but genetics and general herd health may be others. Montana currently has 5,500 bighorn sheep in 48 herds across Montana. Approximately 72 percent of those herds have fewer than 100 animals. During the winter of 2010 alone, Montana lost 20 percent of its total bighorn sheep population.
“We have a lot to learn,” Garrott said.
The MSU/FWP team will focus its attention on seven herds, analyzing such things as genetics, disease, nutrition and metabolism, pregnancy rates, predators, habitat use, and movement patterns. The herds involved live separately, ranging across the state from the Missouri River breaks to Montana’s western border. Some of the herds are native to Montana. Others are the result of reintroductions.
“This is a detective story,” Berardinelli said. “We are trying to piece together parts of the puzzle that will allow us to put our fingers on them.”
Berardinelli has been involved in several wildlife studies in the past and said he is thrilled about the opportunity to participate in a pioneering project on bighorn sheep. As a reproductive physiologist who works toward reproductive efficiency in wildlife and livestock, he will have two main jobs on this study. He will determine pregnancy rates among the seven herds and also analyze their metabolites, especially energy, protein and fat levels. He will give those and other findings to the research team, who will integrate results from all aspects of the studies.
In addition, Thomson is working to find funding so she can analyze DNA samples collected as part of the MSU/FWP project. She is interested in evaluating such things as genetic variations among herds and genetic susceptibility to disease. She already has more than 150 DNA samples for comparison from an MSU data set, which is believed to be one of the largest collections of bighorn sheep DNA in the world. It contains DNA from bighorn sheep in Montana and Wyoming, as well as DNA from bighorn sheep in the Sierra Nevada and wild sheep in Kazakhstan. After field crews finish collecting DNA for this study, Thomson said the data set will probably contain 400 samples.
“I’m excited to be part of this,” said Thomson, who came to MSU two years ago from the University of Alberta where she worked in the largest livestock genomics lab in North America.
“It’s especially exciting for me as a livestock genomics person because the bighorn sheep genome hasn’t been sequenced yet,” she said.
Garrott and Rotella pointed out that some of the funds for the study came from hunters who bid for the opportunity to hunt bighorn sheep in Montana. The Wild Sheep Foundation auctions off one tag a year, with most of the proceeds going to the FWP for bighorn sheep research and habitat improvement. One hunter bid a record $480,000 in 2013. The previous record, set in 2012, was $300,000. Other funds for the FWP grant come from federal taxes on arms and ammunition.
“Those people that care enough one way or another about wildlife are the ones paying for the study,” Rotella said.
Rotella and Garrott said the new study – in addition to producing information for the FWP – will help prepare MSU students for careers in wildlife biology.
Butler, for one, a native of the Flathead Valley, wants to become a wildlife management biologist in Montana. Besides his coursework, research and field crew experience through MSU, he has worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He has presented his research at MSU’s Student Research Celebration, the Montana Nutrition Conference and Livestock Forum and the Montana Academy of Science. He has worked with Rotella and Berardinelli on past studies. He is currently one of Garrott’s Ph.D. students.
“We have an outstanding record of our graduate students contributing to the professional ranks of Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” Garrott said. “We are training professionals.”
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or email@example.com