“Is there something that we are missing in Montana with these recurring die offs in our bighorn population?” – Craig Fager FWP Dillon Area Manager
Culling an entire herd of wild sheep is an idea filled with bad optics. Culling animals is not usually the kind of story that you want to film. The Tendoys is, however, a story that needed to be told. This cull was a co-op between all of the stakeholders working together to keep wild sheep on the mountain. In the Tendoys the only way to keep sheep alive on the mountain was to cull this herd and start over with a fresh reintroduction. The great part about the cull was that hunters got to participate in this process and be a part of the story that will allow the Tendoys to thrive again with healthy sheep on the mountain.
The project of the Tendoys was as a collaboration between the Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana FWP (Fish, Wildlife and Parks) and the Montana Wool Growers Association. Wild Sheep are susceptible to pneumonia passed directly from domesticated sheep and goats. In 2015, all of the stakeholders sat down and worked out an agreement to work together to keep wild sheep on the mountain and domestic sheep and wild sheep separated. It was out of these meetings that the plan for the Tendoys came to be.
We got the opportunity to catch up with Gray Thornton (President and CEO of The Wild Sheep Foundation) David Brinker (Sitka Gear), and Ben Potter (CANA Outdoors) about this new film and the Tendoys project.
Gray what did you want the viewer to take away when they saw the Tendoy film?
Gray Thornton – First, that domestic sheep and goats and wild sheep must be separated. That while both (wild and domestic sheep) do have their place on the landscape, wild sheep are the priority where they roam and deserve to have their “safe” place free from contact with domestic sheep and the pathogens they can transfer. Second, this disease threat is so serious that extreme measures such as depopulation are sometime necessary.
What is the outlook on the domestic sheep issue?
Gray – This is an article in itself. Some leaders in the domestic sheep industry (I call them flat earthers) still refuse to acknowledge the irrefutable science that contact with domestic sheep and goats is the #1 cause of disease and the die offs and low lamb recruitment in wild sheep and is the #1 impediment to the recovery of wild sheep. We must then educate the public on this issue to continue to put pressure on state and federal agencies to work towards separation of domestic sheep and goats and wild sheep. The US Forest Service manages public land grazing allotments where domestic sheep are grazed, often in proximity to wild sheep. Measures should be taken to move those producers to other allotments where wild sheep do not exist. In Montana, most contact issues occur on private land. WSF and our researchers are working on M.ovi free domestic sheep as a possible solution for private land and small farm and hobby flocks. M. ovi expert Dr. Tom Besser of Washington State University estimates that 90+% of the disease issue is mitigated if M. ovi is NOT present in domestic sheep.
David what motivated the team at Sitka Gear to get involved in this project?
David Brinker – The idea was pretty simple…We are a conservation minded company with a strong affiliation with the Wild Sheep Foundation. So when we heard about this hunt, we knew it was a story worth telling that may not happen again.
What was it you wanted the viewer to take away from this after viewing it?
David – We wanted this film to be another tangible example of how hunting is conservation and how individuals, organizations, and brands can get involved to improve the future of wildlife and habitat.
Ben what gave you the idea for this film?
Ben Potter – The idea for the film came from a conversation with Lyle Hebel and David Brinker during a meeting when they mentioned this special hunt that was about to open 3.5 weeks from the date we were chatting. They mentioned there might not ever be another hunt like this. When I hear something like that, it’s a no brainier to get after the story. There are so many stories being told about getting in the filed and hunting big game and even sheep, but you rarely have the opportunity to capture a story that may only have the chance to be told once. So we scrambled for the next few weeks putting a plan together for the film and hunt in the Tendoys.
What difficulties did you run into during this project?
Ben – Filming wildlife is always the number one difficulty. The weather, animals, terrain, etc. are never predictable and always throw you a curve ball, but that is why we love it. I have learned to love the difficulties in capturing nature. It keeps me on my toes and sometimes decides a different story for you. When the outdoors is your studio, you are at its mercy. Specifically in this hunt, we were faced with a mountain that was busy with hunters. When word of this got out about this incredible over-the-counter sheep opportunity, hundreds of tags were sold and the mountain was crawling with hunters. We were able to coordinate with the hunters we chatted with on the mountain, but there was still a lot of activity on the unit.
The original story we were focused on was with the initial efforts by the FWP headed up by Craig Fager. It was an inspiring scenario where the Forest Service was partnering with hunters to eradicate the diseased sheep. I think my personal challenge with this story was considering the long-term effect of eventually re-introducing a new herd of sheep. Would this cycle happen again? It was hard to see a solid solution and ending to the film. We were thrilled with the sheep we harvested and couldn’t be more pleased with the footage, but the question of “what now?” was lingering in my mind. Several months later I was connected with Kurt Alt, the Biologist at Wild Sheep Foundation. He was actually the one who hired Craig Fager, the biologist we interviewed for the film. Kurt came to me with some really exciting findings and collaboration efforts between several universities and the WSF. They were working on breeding a diseased-free domestic sheep that could be introduced to into landscapes that would be shared with wild sheep, but without the risk of infection. When I learned this from Kurt I knew our story wasn’t finished, and we then began the process of implementing this facet into our film. It was the perfect closer to the film and resolution to the problem we were facing. Even though we are in the infant stage of introducing this new breed of domestic sheep, it presents hope for the future of big horn sheep on the Tendoys and across this country.
If you had to give three pieces of advice to aspiring filmmakers out there, what would those be?
Ben Potter – CANA Outdoors
Know your story before you begin. Most times there is more to a story than just a harvest. We love to see that, but it’s the people, places, and struggles we meet along the way that tend to be remembered in the long run. Like I mentioned we had a story in mind for the Tendoys, but it was clear after some time there was more to this story.
Identify your cinematic crutches. It’s different for us all, but we all have that one thing we tend to lean on when we are creating a film. Super slow motion, a kill shot, preferred weather, etc. Most times these things can dilute a story and the soul of your story if they are overdone or depended on for a “successful” film.
Shoot for yourself first and foremost. Enjoy and be inspired by the work from fellow filmmakers, but you should always be your own #1 fan. You can see right through the work that was made out of obligation or contract versus a passion for the story and hunt. If you don’t have a passion for the work you are doing, you will always be working against yourself and the creatives around you.
Did you use/employ any new processes for Tendoys?
Ben – To be honest not much. We packed in our typical array of cameras and batteries. One technical issue we have always faced is battery power on long term back country shoots. We invested in a hand full of Switronix Powerbase 70 Batteries. They gave us some good run time on the cameras and held up pretty well with the temps. Working the FWP into this story was one angle we haven’t ever administered. It was refreshing to work alongside them and gather a lot of insight to the issues behind the hunt that was permitted.
Ben what is the next project for you and your team?
Ben – Well I can’t say much about this at the moment, but we have a big project in the works that we will be shooting for the next 3 months. We hope you stay tuned because we are thrilled for what we have planned
Gray – What is the next step in the Tendoys?
Gray Thornton – The BLM needs to do some controlled burns in the region to mitigate conifer encroachment that have been in the planning stages for decades but delayed due to Federal agency bureaucracy. This will dramatically improve the habitat for wild sheep. Currently, domestic sheep operations still occur in proximity to the wild sheep habitat. Separation measures are needed to prevent re-contact of bighorn sheep with these domestic once bighorns are repatriated to the region. Our team here at the Wild Sheep Foundation also feels that a different source stock of bighorn sheep must be used to repopulate the Tendoys.
Montana FWP has augmented this herd several times with the same source stock…with marginal results (hence the current complete depopulation effort.) FWP should consider using different source stock from SW Montana (Madison Range, etc.) to eliminate that variable. This will be more expensive but WSF has offered to help raise the funds necessary to ensure the success of the Tendoys repopulation with a new source stock and to support a robust FWP monitoring program once bighorns are brought back to the Tendoys.