Big Sky’s bighorns
By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor
I grew up in a small rural neighborhood where every weekday morning my schoolmates and I would gather near the main road to wait for the bus.
One crisp fall morning I watched in horror as my best friend’s Great Pyrenees darted across the road and was struck by a station wagon. It’s giant white body skidded nearly 20 feet down the pavement before we watched the life drain out of this beloved dog’s eyes.
I was reminded of that devastating morning earlier this month when a longtime Big Sky local relayed a recent experience he had on Highway 64.
On the morning of April 30, J.C. Knaub was driving east to grab a cup of coffee from the Conoco gas station. As he approached the sweeping corner less than a mile from the intersection with 191, a large dump truck flashed its lights and Knaub slowed his vehicle to a crawl.
There he found a bighorn ram standing in the road, alive but just barely. The ram had just been hit by a vehicle.
“His right horn, right eye, and the right side of his face was missing,” Knaub said. “It was sad, he was suffering. We’re killing the very thing that makes this place special.”
In the March 6, 2015 edition of this newspaper, we published a story I wrote called “Bighorns in the Crosshairs.”
“It’s the namesake of the local high school’s mascot. It inspires tourists to stop and poke their cameras out of car windows. The Spanish Peaks bighorn sheep herd is a Big Sky icon,” the story began. I wrote about the dangers vehicles pose to these treasured members of our community, especially at the blind corner where Knaub witnessed this stricken ram.
In January of last year, a propane truck swerved to avoid a sheep at that corner, ending up on its side in the ditch. Fortunately, neither the driver nor the sheep were injured in this incident.
But the day before we went to press with this issue of EBS, our Managing Editor Joseph T. O’Connor drove up on the aftermath of another vehicle and bighorn collision. As you’ll see in the photo on this page, the sheep wasn’t so lucky this time.
“It’s a blind corner, it’s very dangerous,” Knaub said. “They need to have a lower speed limit and flashing lights that say ‘Wildlife on the Roadway,’ or something.”
This issue has made it to the state level thanks to concerned Big Sky citizens contacting Montana Department of Transportation. But if you don’t drive Lone Mountain Trail daily, it’s difficult to comprehend the gravity of the danger to both animals and motorists.
The department’s carcass database is notoriously unreliable because motorists don’t always report wildlife deaths to law enforcement, and incidents that don’t result in human injury or property damage aren’t given much attention.
“From January 2005 to December 2014 we didn’t have any reported [bighorn] carcasses on 64,” said Montana Department of Transportation Safety Engineer Kraig Mcleod, adding the department is currently finalizing 2015 data. “Back in March when we looked at this we didn’t have any data that would support flashing lights or signage.”
MDT Butte District Administrator Jeff Ebert – in charge of oversight in this area – reiterated the sentiment, saying there haven’t been enough vehicle crashes on 64 to make this issue a priority. Though he did describe a mitigation project near Anaconda where variable message signage has reduced vehicle collisions with bighorns.
Ebert says he will be meeting with Gallatin and Madison county commissions in June to discuss the Big Sky Transportation Plan.
Spearheaded by the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and David Kack of the Western Transportation Institute, the plan suggests the Gallatin County Commission should submit a speed study request to MDT. The commission voted 2-1 against such a request in the fall.
Until the commission decides to act and a study is done, the speed limit at that notorious corner will remain 50 mph. And another sheep death might not be the worst consequence.
On Aug. 17, 2015, 23-year-old Kelsey McLean died after a head-on collision with a semi truck. The accident was not the result of a bighorn in the road, but speaks to the dangers of this curve where sheep can often be found.
There may be other safety solutions in addition to lowering the speed limit on Highway 64.
“I think ultimately what you could probably do is a fence … to make [the sheep] cross where there are good sightlines,” Kack said. “If they’re going to be out in the road at least it gives the motorist a better chance.”
According to Ebert, the community could install fences within the Department of Transportation’s right-of-way with an encroachment permit. There is no cost for the permit, but the department would need to approve the plans to ensure the design meets breakaway requirements to prevent motorist injuries.
In this unincorporated resort community, the initiative to mitigate sheep and motorist incidents will fall on concerned organizations or citizens. Maybe stories like Knaub’s will motivate that initiative, and it won’t take another human death to so.
I haven’t had the misfortune, as Knaub has, to watch the life drain out of a bighorn’s eyes. I hope I never do.
Visit explorebigsky.com/bighorns-in-the-crosshairs-sheep-and-vehicles-clash-in-big-sky/14068 to read “Bighorns in the Crosshairs,” and send us an email at email@example.com if you want to share your experience with bighorns on Highway 64 or 191.