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20 MT Bighorns to WY (Jan. '06)

Wyo. releases 20 bighorn from Mont.

By Lee Enterprises - 01/23/06
LOVELL, Wyo. (LEE) — Following a spectacular airborne ride, 20 bighorn sheep from the Missouri Breaks near Havre, Mont., have a new home in Wyoming.

The animals were captured by an aerial net-gunning operation Wednesday and released Thursday morning in Devil’s Canyon near Lovell in a joint venture between the Montana and Wyoming wildlife departments.

The operation was scheduled earlier in the week, but was repeatedly postponed due to inclement flying weather in Montana.

The operation follows an earlier release of bighorn sheep in December 2004 into a rugged, remote corner of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in northern Wyoming. In that previous release, the bighorn sheep were from the Deschutes Canyon in northern Oregon.

Mark Gocke, a photographer for Wyoming Game and Fish Department, said the sheep were captured by Pathfinder Helicopters, a contract helicopter crew. He said the helicopter flew over the rugged country of the Missouri Breaks, looking for the sheep that blended in well with the rock and snow. Whenever any bighorns were spooked into running, the helicopter would swoop in on the desired animals.

“The guy who manned the net-gun was called the ‘mugger,’ and he’d lean out and fire the net-gun at the animals we wanted,” Gocke said. Trapped by the net, the animals were swiftly hobbled, blindfolded and loaded onto the helicopter for transport back to a staging area where wildlife veterinarians took measurements, throat swabs and blood samples, injected antibiotics and applied eartags and GPS-radio collars to the adults.

The advantage of using a helicopter and a net-gun is selectivity, said Dennie Hammer, spokesman for Wyoming Game and Fish.

“You can capture exactly what you want and no more,” he said, noting that this operation netted several pairs of ewes and lambs. That’s in marked contrast to luring a band of bighorn under a drop net with tubs of apple mash — partially fermented wind-fall apples that bighorns can’t resist. Under those circumstances, a drop net captures whatever shows up, causing unnecessary stress to the animals that wouldn’t be needed for transplantation elsewhere.

Minimizing stress on the bighorn sheep was a major concern this week as the wildlife biologists assembled for the bighorn “rodeo.” Unlike the December 2004 operation, when individual animals received a lot of handling, there was minimal handling of the animals this week, after they were loaded into horse trailers and driven down to Wyoming. This time, they were loaded straight from horse trailers into a specially constructed box that was airlifted by a Billings Flying Service helicopter.

Once they were loaded, a “long line” was hooked from the cage to a line hanging below the big Huey, and it was Peter Pan time for the bighorn sheep. The cage, constructed of expanded steel, gave the bighorn sheep a bird’s-eye view of the region, because they could see through all sides of the cage — including the bottom.

The 20 animals were transplanted in two such airlifts — one load of 11 animals and the second of nine.

“The first load bunched up, and we had to push them out (of the cage),” said Tom Easterly, a Game and Fish biologist. The second group bolted for freedom as soon as the door was opened.

The Billings company was selected for its expertise in lifting and placing heavy equipment by helicopter.

According to Game and Fish biologist Kevin Hurley, the Montana bighorn sheep included 13 ewes, two yearling rams and five lambs — two males and three females.

The helicopter ride for the sheep and attending biologists was nine miles, from the parking lot at Horse Shoe Bend Marina to the release site at Devil’s Canyon — about 2,800 feet up in elevation from the parking lot.

The newly released animals will join up with their Oregon cousins in Devil’s Canyon.

“We’d already had bighorn in that area, and we picked it for transplant operations because it was adequately distant from domestic sheep,” Hammer said. “There are fewer and fewer areas like that.”

Hammer said the Oregon sheep transplanted into Devil’s Canyon a year ago have done well. All the ewes had lambs, and there were only two losses — one ram found under the ice of Bighorn Reservoir and a ewe that was presumed to have fallen prey to a mountain lion.

Wyoming chapter and national members of the Foundation for Northern American Wild Sheep flew to Devil’s Canyon to see the release.

“It was really neat,” said Curt Shatzer of Gillette, who serves on the board for the Wyoming chapter.
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