Touting the work as a new example of corporate conservation, Brendan Burns said, "We cut out the middle man.” Burns is the conservation director and chief hunting officer for KUIU (pronounced Koo-You), a California-based lightweight hunting gear manufacturer.
Thirty of the sheep went to North Dakota’s Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. No bighorns have been present there for about 150 years, said Brett Wiedman, a North Dakota Game and Fish big game biologist. The reservation is located in central North Dakota along the Missouri River near Lake Sakakawea.
“All states do translocations,” Wiedman said. “It’s usually state to state, agency to agency. To my knowledge, this is the first time a private company stepped up.”
Often, he noted, finding funding for such projects is the limiting factor in whether states can afford to move sheep. That wasn't a problem in this case.
Hauled in A helicopter slowly lowers captured bighorn sheep taken from the Rocky Boy's Reservation in January. Fifty-five sheep were taken from the herd to be transplanted in North Dakota and Utah.
SEACAT New model Burns likes the idea of direct corporate conservation as a way to see concrete results in a specific project rather than using the more traditional route of holding banquets, auctions and fundraisers and donating the money.
“We have focused our conservation goals as a company on tangible projects that have a direct impact on creating future hunting opportunities,” Burns said.
It required KUIU to do a lot more ground work, from lining up the capture crew and volunteers to working directly with state wildlife agencies, not to mention raising $100,000 from donors. Everything on the receiving end of the transplants was managed by the states and their biologists, including testing of the bighorns to insure they were disease free.
“This is the first wildlife conservation project of its kind that has been funded entirely through the private sector,” said Travis Jenson, president of the Utah Wild Sheep Foundation.
Helping hands Jeff Merchant,of North Dakota Game and Fish, George Bettas, Mike Winchell, Jason Radakovich and Robbie Dockter work during the bighorn sheep capture operation on Rocky Boy's Reservation.
SEACAT North Dakota Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the work was the tribe to tribe connection. Thirteen ewes and three young rams were released in North Dakota’s Mandaree area and 12 ewes and two rams went to the Twin Buttes region of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
“We’ve been talking with Game and Fish the last few years and finally did it,” said Toni Smith, Tribal Fish and Wildlife director, in a tribal news story. “We’re excited to see how it goes and if the herd will expand and flourish.”
“There are historical accounts from our tribal members of hunting them with bow and arrow,” said Cory Spotted Bear, Twin Buttes councilman, in the story. “Crows Heart, a full-blooded Mandan and one of the last of the old timers, said they would go to the Little Missouri Breaks specifically to hunt bighorns. To see these sheep released was very uplifting and emotional. It’s meaningful for us and the state.”
Ultimately the tribe will take over sole management of the herd, Wiedman said.
“It’s going to be a fantastic hunt,” he said, in rocky cliffs similar to Montana’s Missouri River Breaks.
The similarity of habitat has helped the sheep thrive since the transplant four months ago, he added.
“They come and it feels like home,” Wiedman said.
In about five or six years the North Dakota sheep herd could be large enough to allow limited hunting. Tags from the stocked herd will be split between the state and tribe for auction and drawings.
Sheep carry Levi Jacobson, of North Dakota Game and Fish, Jake Franklin, Willie Hettinger, and Brendan Burns, KUIU chief hunting officer and director of conservation, help haul a bighorn sheep during capture operations in January.
SEACAT Utah The 25 bighorns sent to Utah also tell a unique story of conservation and point out one of the biggest challenges that bighorn sheep face.
The Montana animals were placed on Antelope Island State Park, which is located in the Great Salt Lake. The sheep replaced a herd that for decades had thrived on the island, even providing sheep for other Utah transplant operations.
Then between 2018 and 2019 Antelope Island’s bighorn sheep were infected with pneumonia. About 150 animals died. The 26 survivors were shot so a new herd could be established free of concerns about disease transfer between herds.
In another example of the partnership needed for such work, the Utah Wild Sheep Foundation provided 15 tracking collars to study the three herds, as the animals are established on their new home ranges.
As in North Dakota, once the bighorn sheep herd hits a sustainable population and age distribution on Antelope Island, hunting tags will be issued through auction and a state drawing.
Volunteers Sierra Dockter, Mike Winchell, Justin FourColors, Rocky Boy's Reservation tribal bighorn manager and Robbie Dockter help handle a bighorn sheep as a blood sample is drawn
SEACAT Rocky Boy’s None of the work would have taken place without the approval of the Rocky Boy’s Reservation, a partnership that Burns has nurtured for years.
“Brendan has been really good about helping me,” said Justin FourColors, tribal sheep manager. “We’ve started to get older class rams, Boone and Crockett animals, out of here every year.”
Burns, who lives in Bozeman, has been helping the tribe with its bighorn sheep herd since 2011. The animals were transplanted to the reservation in 2008.
“It’s a great conservation model,” he said. “But they’re pretty private about it.”
Rocky Boy’s includes the Bears Paw Mountains and 6,900-foot high Mount Baldy, south of Havre. Since the 1980s the Chippewa-Cree Tribe’s Fish and Game program has overseen hunting on the reservation, including the issuance of two nontribal bighorn sheep tags every year.
One of the benefits from the transfer of 55 sheep is that it helps the reservation keep its herd at the desired population objective, about 110 to 120 animals, FourColors said. More than that and sheep are likely to wander off the reservation.
“Excess bighorn sheep are quite possibly the rarest commodity in the West,” Burns said. “We did not take the opportunity for granted.”
"This has been a very positive experience for everyone involved,” said Bobbi J. Favel, Natural Resources director for the Chippewa Cree Tribe. “We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to work with Brendan and his team and are looking forward to seeing the results of this project for the betterment of sheep in the West.”
Gear designer builds products for hunting extremes Reflection In addition to the conservation success, the transplant work was a personal way for Burns to honor the memory of KUIU founder and former NFL linebacker Jason Hairston. Hairston died in 2018 while suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease found in people with a history of recurring brain trauma.
Burns said the project also fulfilled KUIU’s requirements that the locations receiving transplants be open to future hunting and that both sheep herds be available to supplement or replenish the Rocky Boy’s herd if it ever suffered a die-off.
“This project has been a great example of how private and public organizations can work together to benefit wildlife,” Wiedman said.
Good luck, Robb