On the move
Published: November 16, 2007
(The beauty of bighorns like this ram has become a distraction along Interstate 84 between Arlington and Biggs — drivers are craning their necks to see the sheep herds that roam down to the roadside and not paying close enough attention to traffic. Biologists hope that moving some of the I-84 herd to Baker County will help solve the problem. Photo courtesy of Jim Ward)
By JAYSON JACOBY
Baker City Herald
Some members of Oregon's most famous band of bighorn sheep are moving to Baker County.
Certainly none of the state's bunches of bighorns are as conspicuous — or are seen by so many people who are traveling at such high speeds — as the sheep that loiter along the basalt-strewn slopes beside Interstate 84 between Arlington and Biggs.
Drive that 22-mile stretch of freeway during the daylight and it's quite probable that you'll pass within sight of bighorns.
Which is basically the problem, explains Nick Myatt, the district wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Baker City office.
State officials would prefer that people driving at 65 mph focus on the freeway instead of trying to figure out if a particular ram's horns have a full curl.
To prevent drivers' attention from being diverted by such distractions, ODFW plans to capture about 30 bighorns from what's known as the "I-84 herd," Myatt says.
"Some of the sheep have been seen right down on the freeway," he says. "It's getting to be a safety concern."
Biologists will haul the trapped bighorns to other parts of Oregon, Myatt says — including 10 sheep that will be released in the Burnt River Canyon about 20 miles southeast of Baker City.
The trap-and-transplant operation is tentatively scheduled for the first week of December, Myatt says.
Besides the potential danger the bighorns pose to motorists (not to mention the bighorns), the sheep have been gorging themselves in farmers' fields, he says.
Myatt is eager for the I-84 sheep to arrive.
The bighorns will help augment the Burnt River Canyon herd, which seems to be shrinking.
For most of the past decade, the herd's population has hovered around 70, Myatt says.
But last year ODFW biologists counted just 47 bighorns in the canyon.
"We probably missed some, but it does appear the population is declining," Myatt says.
ODFW first brought bighorns to the Burnt River Canyon in 1987, when biologists released 15 sheep. Those bighorns came from Leslie Gulch in Malheur County.
The Burnt River bighorns, like those that roam the I-84 corridor, are of the California subspecies.
Baker County also harbors herds of Rocky Mountain bighorns, the other type of wild sheep that lives in Oregon.
Myatt says biologists speculate that predation by cougars is at least partially responsible for the recent decline in the bighorn herd in Burnt River Canyon.
But biologists would rather base their theories on something more scientific than hunches.
Something like the sheep themselves.
To that end, each of the 11 bighorns from the freeway herd will be fitted with a collar that emits a radio signal. ODFW biologists can home in on those signals and monitor the bighorns' movements.
"We'd like to have a better idea of the extent of their range," Myatt says.
Equally important, the collars send a unique signal if they are stationary for a certain period of time — when a sheep dies, for instance.
If biologists find the carcass relatively soon, they often can figure out how the sheep died.
None of the bighorns in the Burnt River Canyon herd now has a radio collar, Myatt says.
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