Sheep shipped

Posted 2/4/10

Though the sheep experienced some stress while being netted and ferried by helicopters to the staging area, none appeared to suffer undue hardship, nor were any injured.

Two helicopters were employed to snag the bighorns. One helicopter herded …

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Sheep shipped


{gallery}02_02_10/sheep{/gallery}A young bighorn sheep ram, though blindfolded, may have found being captured for relocation to the Seminoe Mountains a bit disconcerting. Still, none of the 12 sheep captured by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, airlifted and then transported in trailers, were injured. Tribune photo by Gib Mathers Bighorn sheep transferred sans complications It was almost a carnival atmosphere Friday, when around 50 people took part in, or witnessed, the capture and radio collaring of 12 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Big Horn Mountain's Devil's Canyon area near Lovell.The sheep were transferred Saturday to the Seminoe Mountains, north of Sinclair.Participating in or watching the capture were personnel from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Powell High School students, media and helicopter crews.

Though the sheep experienced some stress while being netted and ferried by helicopters to the staging area, none appeared to suffer undue hardship, nor were any injured.

Two helicopters were employed to snag the bighorns. One helicopter herded sheep to a safe location, where the gunner shot a net over the animals.

“Muggers” hopped out of the second helicopter to blindfold and calm the animals while freeing them from the nets.

Once the sheep are tangled in the net and blindfolded, they settle down, said Dennie Hammer, Game and Fish public information specialist.

The sheep were then placed in mesh bags for transport to the staging area, where they were examined. Then, the bighorns were loaded in a modified horse trailer called a “Ewe Haul.”

Meanwhile, helicopters patrol the sheer canyon walls.

Personnel stretch tarps on the snowy ground to examine the sheep. While waiting, they form groups to chat or stroll to a picnic table for donuts and coffee.

A shot echos off the craggy hills. A net gun? “Pop!” Another shot, then another.

A helicopter sways overhead, then lands, its rotor wash triggering a small blizzard of snow like damp gypsum.

A mugger hand carries a small blindfolded bighorn to a tarp, and a half-dozen personnel go to work like a triage team at an accident site.

Well-wishers and the curious observe from a few feet away. Both the team and the observers speak in hushed, almost reverent, tones in a mix of concern for the ungulate and wonder at witnessing the proceedings.

Suddenly, it seems the choppers are in fast delivery mode while Game and Fish Bighorn Sheep Coordinator Kevin Hurley mans a radio with the pilots and directs crews on the ground.

Another sheep is brought in. This one, a young ram, is suspended by a cable and wrapped in a net like a baby bundled in a bassinet. His legs poke from the sides of the net and his head juts forward defiantly, despite his confinement.

The guys grab him from his webbing and hustle the young ram to the waiting tarp.

Nose swabs are taken to check for bacteria capable of causing pneumonia. Blood is drawn to test for various diseases and ears examined for scabies — mites that cause severe fur loss.

After a quick exam, the guys struggle to haul the ram to a horse trailer. He's feisty, squirming and jerking.

The unruly ram pops Game Warden Craig Sax on the snout. He endures a minor nose bleed, but merely wipes his nose with a paper towel and returns to work. Fortunately, Sax's nose was the only casualty — animal or human — in the roundup.

“I got butted!” Sax said in a nasally voice while clamping fingers over his bloody nose. “I took one for the team,” he said smiling and garnering laughs.

Tom Easterly, Game and Fish wildlife biologist in Greybull, partners with Hurley to run the show — only he commands from a helicopter alongside muggers.

Taking a break from his bird, Easterly said the capture is achieving two important goals: Supplementing the herd in the Seminoes and keeping wild sheep separate from domestic sheep.

Domestic sheep are herded to the Big Horns for grazing and typically carry a bacteria they are immune to — but their non-domesticated cousins do not have that immunity. And the two species do intermingle. That bacteria can cause pneumonia in Rocky Mountain sheep, Easterly said.

The department wants to maintain the wild sheep on the north side of Devil's Canyon and remove those in Cottonwood Canyon, where they can circulate with domestic sheep, Easterly said, his voice rising over the whine of helicopter ratcheting up.

Back at the staging area, five ewes and three rams have been nabbed.

“Hobbles are off,” says a voice outside the trailer as the boys ease a ewe into the trailer.

In she goes, bounding on the steel floor with a hollow echo.

With the first wave delivered expeditiously, the helicopters are now poking about the ridges, searching for the final four. The copters fly up and down, blades whirling like translucent humming bird wings.

Sax takes a break and scans a nearby ridge with a spotting scope, quickly spotting a herd of elk bedded down and a couple of eagles squatting on rocks, seemingly oblivious to the drama just southeast of their position.

Then, the final four arrive.

No. 12 is blindfolded and lying on a tarp while personnel huddle over her. Her nose trembles slightly, perhaps testing the air for danger.

Easy, girl.

She is being handled with kid gloves by folks determined to make her tribulation as painless as possible.

A minute or two later, she joins the detainees in the Ewe Haul. They have remained quiet during their ordeal, which lasted about four or five hours.

Greg Hiatt, department wildlife biologist from Sinclair, is happy to see sheep being imported from a relatively low elevation and a corresponding vegetation-type range similar to those in the Seminoes.

Hiatt is eager to observe how the supplementary bighorns adapt.

“The next couple of weeks should be exciting,” Hiatt said.

The capture went without a hitch, and so did the release Saturday, Hammer said Monday morning.

After all his time and effort spent organizing the capture, it was very gratifying, Hurley said.