Posted: Jul 17, 2012 7:09 PM by Dennis Bragg - KPAX News
Updated: Jul 18, 2012 11:16 AM
THOMPSON FALLS- A fatal motorcycle accident is once more underscoring the hazards of bighorn sheep on Highway 200.
State officials say solutions to the problem aren't simple, but they're already working to make some changes.
Thompson Falls is known for its bighorn sheep, but biologists say the population is disappearing fast.
"Back in 2007 we were seeing about 200 sheep," said Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Bruce Sterling. "Now we're down in the low 50s. So it's been pretty precipitous."
The problem lies along a 15-mile stretch of Montana Highway 200 between Thompson Falls and Plains.
Sterling says in a "good year" only a dozen sheep die on the road or are hit by passing trains, but it can be much higher: one year more than 36 were killed. This year, a single accident killed five sheep.
Besides collisions, residents who live along the road say tourists stopping to take pictures of the sheep also create hazards.
Kim Braaten lives along the road, and said she sees people stop to take pictures often this time of year.
"Just thinking it's okay to do it--they're just looking for trouble," Braaten said.
Besides sheep, the winding section of road is busy with trucks, tourists, motorcycles and local traffic. The sheep often want what's available at the highway. Magnesium chloride, used to de-ice the road, is like a salt lick. And biologists say in the spring, grass along the road is like a salad bar.
"And what we're finding is that the mag chloride is actually a sticky substance and that's adhering to the striped surfaces on the highway," Sterling said. "And so what's happening is it's there for a lot longer time period."
That can result in wrecks like last weekend, when a Missoula motorcyclist was killed at Bad Rock point. Hitting a sheep is very bad news, says Braaten.
"Those sheep are like a brick. People don't realize what a dense critter they are," Braaten said.
Sterling said he's been picking up dead sheep on the road since 1985, and the problem hasn't gone away. "It's been very frustrating, probably the most frustrating event that I've had in my career," he said.
Sterling's hope is that the Montana Department of Transportation drops use of magnesium chloride as a de-icer and the county lowers the speed limit.
But for now, being aware and slowing down is the best defense.