ANACONDA — State agencies and local government officials are pondering ways to keep bighorn sheep off stretches of Highway 1 after an accident Monday killed at least eight animals west of Anaconda.
An adult man from Anaconda was driving westbound when he ran his truck through a herd of bighorns, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. Alcohol was not a factor. Ray Vinkey, wildlife biologist with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said one ewe and seven rams were killed, two of which were trophy rams.
Sheep fatalities on this stretch of road have been a concern since he began work at FWP, Vinkey told The Montana Standard Monday afternoon. There are two primary reasons why: a high speed limit of 70 mph, and salt left over from highway maintenance to melt winter snow and ice.
“Drivers are going faster than they can react to animals being in the road,” Vinkey said. “Any reduction in speed would be enormously helpful.”
FWP has worked several years with the highway department to lower the speed limit, Vinkey said, though they were told it is a difficult process.
The distance between the first dead sheep and the last following Monday's accident was 373 feet, Vinkey said.
The number provides an indication to how significant a factor speed can be, he said.
“Sheep were scattered all up the length of the highway,” Vinkey said.
Animals are attracted to the middle of the road by salt left behind in winter sanding, Vinkey said. They like to come down and lick up what they can, standing still in the way of traffic.
Charity Watt, spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Transportation, said its sand consists of a 10 percent salt mixture. The salt serves several purposes, such as helping the sand stick to the road and keeping it from freezing.
“It (also) helps the snow and ice to melt quicker, which allows us to plow it off,” Watt said.
MDT officials know sheep are common in this area, Watt said, prompting them to work out an informal agreement where Anaconda-Deer Lodge County sands that stretch of road itself. The sand used by the county does not have salt, she said.
The agreement took hold at the beginning of this winter season, Watt said. The state has not sanded that piece of highway in three weeks, and will not do so unless it is absolutely necessary.
“We're getting the paperwork in order to finalize this agreement,” Watt said.
Residual salt from past sanding may still be on the ground, tempting sheep into harm's way. The MDT has plans to send out sweepers, Watt said, to remove any possible remaining salt.
Continuing sheep deaths on the highway may result in a reduction of hunting permits there, Vinkey said.
“The population can only sustain so much mortality,” Vinkey said.
County commission vice chairman Mark Sweeney has brought up the risk of sheep in the roads in recent meetings and work sessions. In light of Monday's accident, he is encouraging Chief Executive Becky Guay to schedule a meeting among agencies to consider solutions.
The county, Police Chief John Sullivan, FWP, MDT and sportsmen groups should all be represented at such a meeting, Sweeney said.
“Let's make sure we're all on the same page, and brainstorm to come up with solutions,” Sweeney said.
With sheep licking salt and working their way across what Vinkey called “a natural crossing point,” more precautions must be taken to avoid future accidents, Sweeney said. Signage put up last year, warning drivers that sheep may be present, is not enough.
Highway patrol troopers said the driver was “not paying attention to the large signs,” leading to Monday's crash.
“The public needs to be aware that's a hazardous area, and extra caution is warranted,” Sweeney said.
Vinkey said he would be open to such a meeting.
“It's not a finger-pointing issue,” Vinkey said. “I think all parties are interested in reducing sheep mortality. We just need to agree on the best way to do that.”
Reporter George Plaven may be reached at email@example.com