The bighorn sheep’s horns curled out of its skull, completing one full spiral on each side before tapering to rounded, outward-pointing ends. In life, they likely served their owner well as he butted heads and vied for mates on Flathead Lake’s Wild Horse Island.
“That is a spectacular specimen for a bighorn ram,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region One Parks Manager David Landstrom, who has worked on Wild Horse for 20 years.
“You can really tell an excellent one,” he said after bringing it out from secure storage, “and that clearly is an excellent sheep.”
This skull, and two others discovered on Wild Horse in fall 2016, are now being evaluated by the record-keeping Boone and Crockett Club. They’re likely to rank among the largest bighorn skulls ever found — and one could set a world record.
Bighorn sheep have roamed Wild Horse Island since 1939, when two were transplanted there with the intention of establishing a game preserve. The 2,163-acre island’s prairie grasses made it ideal for the animals, and about 100 now live there.
When three of their skulls, all from 8- to 10-year-old males who likely died of natural causes, were collected last fall, wildlife officials took notice. “They’re all over 200 inches, which is incredible for a bighorn sheep,” said Fish, Wildlife and Parks regional supervisor Jim Williams.
That number refers to the sum of each horn’s length and their circumferences at quarter-length intervals, minus the difference between the two sets of circumference measurements. This method was developed by the Missoula-based Boone and Crockett Club in the early 20th Century. Justin Spring, the club’s director of big game records, said that it still serves as a valuable gauge of bighorns’ health.
“The more length and mass on their horns, the healthier the animal is, the better the habitat, and the more resources it can devote to horn growth.”
Citing its ability to sustain such large headgear, Williams said that “Montana is unique because of these bighorns.” And Wild Horse Island stands out within the state, providing 421 rams, through periodic transplants, to other populations since the 1950s.
Soon, the spot could claim the world’s largest ram.
The skulls were all preserved in a freezer after being collected. Prior to measurement, the Boone and Crockett Club requires them to stay at room temperature for 60 days. Two of the skulls have already completed this stage, getting a thorough cleaning from beetles in the process.
Those two will likely rank among the top 10, Spring said, but their measurements must first be confirmed by a panel set to convene in April 2019. One of these, stored at Fish, Wildlife and Parks office in Kalispell, measures 205 2/8 inches. Another measures 209 inches.
In a photograph, the third “looks bigger than the other two,” he said. That puts it within striking distance of the world record, a 209 4/8-inch ram from Alberta. But he cautioned that “we do not have a definite number on that yet.”
Measurements will have to wait until the skull completes 60 days outside the freezer, a period that Williams and Landstrom said only began a few weeks ago. If the tests indicate it’s a new world record, Spring said a special panel would convene as soon as possible to confirm it.
Record-setting game animals “bring attention to the area” where they’re found, Spring said. If a Wild Horse ram claims the top spot, he predicts that “it’ll bring notoriety to the island.”
That’s exactly what Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wants to happen. As a “primitive state park,” Wild Horse’s only income comes in the form of non-resident entrance fees.
That hasn’t made it easy to preserve the conditions its rams need.
“The last decade has been a really strong effort to deal with encroachment” of ponderosa pines onto the island’s shortgrass prairie, Landstrom explained. “We try to mimic what a fire would have done” by cutting and burning pines, “and that’s costly.”
He said that in the past 10 years, the effort has required nearly $400,000, mostly in federal grants, and hundreds of hours of volunteer labor.
“We’re hopeful that this [discovery] could spur philanthropic giving and donations to the Montana State Parks Foundation from conservation organizations,” Landstrom said.
Even as the third skull adjusts to room temperature and awaits measurement for a record, Williams sees three plus-200-inch rams as proof of a successful track record.
“It’s been managed very well...and these rams are a product of what they’ve done.”
Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or at 758-4407.