Mar 10, 2015

Game and Fish capture Big Horn Mountains’ bighorn sheep for transplant

A couple dozen more Big Horn Mountain bighorn sheep are making a new home in the Seminoe Mountains.

The Wyoming Game and Fish Department captured the 25 sheep on Friday morning from the Devils Canyon herd in the Big Horn Mountains. They'll supplement the Seminoe Mountain herd north of Sinclair.

Greg Hiatt, Game and Fish wildlife biologist in Sinclair, said the goal was accomplished: 21 ewes, one lamb and three young rams.

The sun gradually warms the staging area at the Cottonwood Creek trailhead when the first batch of bighorn sheep arrive tethered to a helicopter.

The helicopter herds the sheep to a safe location where the gunner shoots a net over the sheep, where a net-gun capture crew catch the sheep. The crew consists of a pilot, gunner and animal handlers, known as “muggers.” The muggers disembark the helicopter to calm each animal by placing a blindfold over its eyes while freeing it from the net. They hobble the animals and place them in a large mesh bag for quick transport to the staging/processing area.

With the sound like a rolled up newspaper swatting a kitchen counter, the helicopter’s rotors slap the sky. Dangling beneath the helicopter, as though enveloped in cocoons, are four blindfolded bighorns. The pilot eases his machine over the staging area and gently lowers his live cargo to the ground.

Like the actors during the opening credits of the TV show MASH, Game and Fish personnel dash to landing zone to carry the sheep back in tarps that resemble stretchers. Then the crew lay the animals on the ground to examine the sheep.

After being examined, the sheep get a radio collar and are carried to a straw-padded horse trailer, called a “Ewe Haul.”

They collect blood samples and other biological samples, according to a handout provided by Tara Hodges, Game and Fish information and education specialist.

Once the exam is completed, a radio collar is attached and the sheep are carried to a straw-padded horse trailer, called a “Ewe Haul.”

From there, they are transported to Rawlins and held overnight. On Saturday morning, the animals were taken to the Seminoes for release, according to the handout.

The Devils Canyon herd population objective is 200. A summer count estimated the population at 212 sheep, Hiatt said.

Game and Fish wants to maintain a population of 200 so the sheep don’t overpopulate, causing them to mingle with domestic sheep, according to the handout.

Sometimes a combination of the germs and pathogens domestic sheep carry can kill bighorn sheep, Hiatt said.

The Seminoe herd population objective is 300 sheep, Hiatt said. There were between 60 and 70 sheep in the Seminoe Mountains prior to Friday’s capture.

Game and Fish prefer Devils Canyon sheep for Seminoe relocations because both mountain ranges have similar terrain and climate. And, the Devils Canyon sheep lamb in late April or early May. That is an opportune time to deliver newborns while the Seminoe area is still green, Hiatt said.

In the late 1970s, sheep from Whiskey Mountain near Dubois were relocated to the Seminoes, but Game and Fish has not confirmed that any of those animals survived. In 2009, 20 bighorns were transplanted from Oregon. Another 20 arrived in 2010 from Oregon. Also in 2010, 12 bighorns were relocated from Devils Canyon, Hiatt said.

Presumably to keep animals calm, the people ministering to the sheep speak in hushed tones. The small crowd gathered to watch remain quiet too, fascinated with the proceedings.

For the most part, the wild ungulates weather their captivity with relative calm. As the morning warms, personnel place the sheep in shallow snow drifts to keep them cool during their examination. Once the sheep are deposited in trailers, they remain docile except to occasionally kick the stall walls like horses waiting to unload at a choice pasture.

A number of volunteers assist the Game and Fish biologists in tending the bighorns.

Wendy Smith, Powell High School environmental science teacher, brought her students out to the site. Soon, they too are helping Game and Fish personnel examine the sheep.

Smith’s students handle the sheep with care.

“I was pretty impressed,” Hiatt said. “It was a good class.”

Meeteetse high schooler Jamey Olson came to assist her father, Jim Olson, a Game and Fish game warden based in Meeteetse.

Olson said she is happy to help and to be near the sheep. “Seeing them like this is pretty cool.”

One ewe’s ear tore during capture, but the veterinarian on site at Devils Canyon gave her a sedative and stitched her up, Hiatt said.

“The release went well,” Hiatt said. The bighorns headed right into the Seminoes when they were dropped off near their new home Saturday “and immediately started feeding.”

~Story and photos by Gib Mathers

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