Counting sheep: 25 moved to Seminoe Mountains

by patti carpenter

A wild sheep gather that started at dawn literally plucked 25 bighorn sheep from the Devil’s Canyon herd and transported them by helicopter to a nearby staging area where they were prepped for a long journey across the state to join another herd in the Seminoe Mountains of Wyoming. By noon, each sheep had been examined, collared, tagged, DNA profiled, checked for diseases, vaccinated, treated for parasites and loaded into an appropriately labeled “Ewe Haul” trailer, before being transplanted to the southeastern part of the state where they joined a compatible herd of sheep in need of a genetic infusion.

“This herd was always intended to be a source herd,” explained Game and Fish spokesperson Tara Hodges. “They were originally transplanted here to help our herd in Devil’s Canyon, which they did. At the time we had only 60 sheep; now we have more than 200. The idea all along was that as the herd grew in population it would be used to supplement other herds in the state.

“These sheep are a good fit with the Seminoe herd. They are healthy and they are over our population objective (200). The Seminoe herd is also very healthy but under their population objective.”

Lovell Game Warden Jim Hobbs explained that keeping the population within a certain size helps keep the herd healthy and keeps them from wandering into the grazing pastures with domestic sheep, where they can transmit disease.

“We counted 212 this year,” he explained. “That actually means there are many more than that, because you can never really count them all.”

Hobbs said transplanting the sheep does not hurt the herd. In fact, it keeps it “robust.”

“It actually bolsters the herd,” he said. “They are very healthy and growing in size. We are granting four licenses this year instead of two because the size of the herd has increased. So this is good for hunting, too.”

The operation took place in a remote area of the canyon, where a single helicopter piloted by Mark Shelton of Native Range Capture Services plucked sheep from the herd one-by-one using a special net gun. Once a sheep was caught in the net, a specially trained “mugger” was lowered down from the helicopter to the ground, where he hobbled, blindfolded and administered a mild tranquilizer to the captured sheep. Once stabilized, four to five bags, each containing one sheep apiece, were then strung together and quickly transported to a nearby staging area. Once lowered into the staging area, an army of scientists, veterinarians, Game and Fish employees and volunteers prepared the sheep for their long journey across the state.

“The capture went well,” said Shelton, who originally got his experience capturing wild animals from the air in New Zealand. “All the bighorn sheep seemed to be in good shape.”

“These guys are quick and very experienced,” said Hobbs. “They blindfold and restrain the animal very quickly, which keeps it calm. They monitor the animal’s stress rate the whole time and their success rate with that is very high.”

“We want to treat these animals as humanely as possible,” added Greybull Game Warden Bill Robertson. “This is actually good for the Devil’s Canyon herd and increases their survival rate. It’s a good, healthy group that brings fresh DNA wherever it goes and that DNA is always preserved. The Seminoe group only has about 60 right now. Our group was small like that, too, before we got a boost from the eastern Montana herd.”

Graduate student Blake Lowrey was on the scene like many other wildlife biologists to take samples and to help collar and tag the animals for long-term studies.

“This is a great collaboration,” he said. “It takes so much time to get an animal in hand, we want to do all of the testing we can while we have the opportunity.”

Lowrey, who has studied collaring extensively, explained that two types of collars are used on the sheep to track motion, migration patterns and to answer a “huge” number of important questions.

“Each collar has its own frequency (VHS or GPS) and identifies the exact animal,” he explained. “Oftentimes the signal can be picked up from the air using specialized antennas. In he field you can gather thousands of locations in one day. It used to take all day to gather information on one animal.”

Lowrey explained that the collars are set to “blow off” after being on the animal for a certain period of time. About 80 – 90 percent of the collars are recovered, in some cases, with up to 10 years of invaluable data for scientists to study.

“Some of these collars last up to 10 years,” said Hank Edwards, Wildlife Disease Specialist. “You can’t even get a watch battery to last that long.

“Collecting that many years of data on an animal is phenomenal. We can do so much with that information.”

Edwards, a self-proclaimed “lab rat,” was on the scene collecting blood samples that he and other specialists would study to better understand certain types of bacteria that cause pneumonia in wild sheep. He said the blood would also be used to create a DNA database that can later be used to track the origin of sheep and to better understand why certain sheep, like the ones from the Devil’s Canyon herd, are better able to tolerate certain diseases.

The blood is also used for trace mineral analysis, to check for pregnancy and to look for exposure to common viral diseases, he said.

“We are here to do everything we can to determine the health of the herd, which, by the way, is one of the healthiest herds in the state,” said Edwards.

After the poking and prodding was complete, the herd was loaded into trailers lined with a comfortable bed of straw for the long trip south.

“Wildlife is amazingly resilient,” said State Veterinarian Mary Wood. “Of course there is always a risk when you do this sort of thing, but typically they do very well. We try to keep them calm and relaxed for the ride down, so they arrive injury free.”