A team of wildlife experts, veterinarians and volunteers stood silently as a helicopter came into view after it crested the hills east of Lovell on Saturday. The helicopter made its way toward the group as they stood waiting in a staging area set up next to the Kane boat ramp near the causeway.
As it approached, a string of four bewildered Bighorn sheep recently plucked from the Devil’s Canyon herd, now suspended from the helicopter, came into view. The pilot, David Rivers of Native Range Capture Services, gently lowered them to the ground, then immediately headed back in the direction of the canyon to gather another four or five sheep before the weather got too warm.
Moments earlier, a member of the helicopter’s crew, Kevin Coates, deployed a net gun using the special device to capture and immobilize sheep one by one. The team’s “mugger” Colton Hodson jumped from the helicopter as it hovered precariously a few feet above the captured wild sheep. Hodson wrangled each individual sheep, blindfolded it to keep it calm and placed hobbles around its ankles to keep it from running away. A mild tranquilizer was administered and the sheep was carefully loaded into a padded bag designed for its safe transport to the nearby staging area. The operation took place in a matter of minutes.
Native Range crew member Cedar Hincke explained that time is of the essence in capturing the sheep to avoid undue stress on the animal. He said the team strives to work fast and not to run the sheep too far, running them uphill whenever possible to keep them from getting up to full speed during the capture. Hincke said he’s wrangled many types of animals during his two years on the crew of Native Range, but sheep are his favorite because they don’t kick as much as elk. He noted that the company specializes in capturing many types of wild animals from wolves to deer to elk, with most of its clients being state agencies.
“We’re pretty careful about how we handle the animals, but they are wild animals and can be unpredictable,” said Hincke, who was working the ground crew for the team that day.
The capture operation began at daybreak, and by noon 24 sheep had been captured, brought to the staging area, examined by a team of scientists and veterinarians, collared, tagged, 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 the Ferris-Seminoe herd of sheep awaiting another genetic infusion.
Ultrasound was also used to determine how many of the female sheep were pregnant, on the day of the gather. The exam brought good news: Every single ewe captured was pregnant said State wildlife veterinarian Mary Wood — a sign of a healthy herd.
Wildlife disease specialist Hally Killion was on site collecting samples to be taken back to the G&F lab in Laramie.
“We look for bacteria that cause pneumonia by swabbing samples from the animal’s nose and tonsils,” explained Killion. “We are looking for specific pathogens that cause certain types of pneumonia in wild sheep. It takes a few weeks to study the samples.”
Killion said her team also looks for larvae from parasites in fecal samples and in ear swabs. They also gather blood samples. In past years, they have used the samples to develop an extensive DNA data base. She said the team has conducted surveillance on all the herds in the state and maintains a complete data base of the information it has collected.
“We are looking at general health, what pathogens they may be carrying,” she said.
Killion said last year’s capture group was relatively “clean” in terms of pathogens. Her team will be able to evaluate the condition of sheep from this year’s capture after a few weeks of studying the samples collected during their capture.
According to Wyoming Game and Fish spokesperson Tara Hodges, the operation was to be repeated on Wednesday with a goal of capturing about 15 or more sheep in the same manner. This is not the first time sheep have been transplanted from the Devil’s Canyon herd into the herds that occupy the Ferris- Seminoe range. Transplant operations have been conducted out of this herd over a period of several years.
Wildlife biologist Gregg Haitt will personally transport the sheep to the Ferris-Seminoe area, which he has managed for 39 years. He said last year’s transplants fared well. Of those that were collared, one was lost to a mountain lion and one very young ewe died shortly after giving birth to a lamb.
“She was a young ewe and we assume she just had complications,” explained Haitt. “Otherwise everyone else is walking around enjoying themselves. We had a couple sheep that travelled from the Ferris herd to the Seminole herd, out of the 24 we transplanted last year, but they eventually returned to the Ferris side, right exactly where we wanted them.”
Haitt said the area saw a good lamb crop again this year, with three lambs being born out of every five ewes, which he said was a good ratio for sheep. The ewes give birth once a year. Haitt said because the Devil’s Canyon sheep are low elevation sheep, they tend to lamb a month earlier than sheep they transplanted from other areas.
“Their lambs seem to hit the ground in the spring, which is good in our 7,000 to 8,000-foot range, making them “well-synchronized for the environment.”
Haitt said the rams tend to explore a bit when they get to their new home, but they also tend to come back to where they were released.
“Sometimes they go over to the Seminoes, but they keep coming back to their girls, which is good,” said Haitt. “It’s typical for rams to wander but less typical for them to come back like that. That tells me they are happy with the environment we put them on in the Ferrises.”
Unfortunately, two sheep did not fare as well during this year’s capture operation, both dying before Haitt could get them to their new home.
G&F issued an official statement regarding the death of the two animals on Tuesday.
“Two ewes died as a result of the Devil’s Canyon bighorn sheep transplant effort Saturday,” it read. “Upon necropsy, it was determined that one individual was already sick with pneumonia; the second ewe died due to a capture-related injury.
“Mortality of bighorn sheep associated with transplant efforts is not a desired outcome. There is inherent risk, however, associated with capturing and transporting wildlife. We do everything we can to minimize stress and control risk factors associated with these efforts and feel that ultimately the benefits of transplant efforts outweigh the risk. While mortality rates associated with these efforts is not always zero, it is very low and in many cases mortality does not occur at all.”
In most cases, the animals survive the ordeal, but Haitt said it’s not uncommon to lose one to a mountain lion, since the sheep are new to the area, which puts them at a disadvantage for the first few weeks. He said occasionally one is lost to capture myopathy. Haitt said he thinks there is less capture myopathy because of the tranquilizers that are given to the animals to help them through the process.
“The worst part of this is getting captured, because they are running full tilt and then suddenly they are tangled in a net, but then they get their first sedative at that time and another sedative when they reach the staging area,” said Haitt. “Native Range is very professional and very careful about how they handle our animals.”
The current count is 130 for the Ferris/Seminoe area combined. Haitt said the goal is to boost the population of the herd to 300. He said since the population is less on the Ferris side, all the sheep from this transplant will be deposited in that area. He said it has helped that the precipitation has been good in the area for the past few years, noting that the area has not seen as much precipitation as other parts of the state this year.
“Our mountains are in great shape, but a lot of our lowlands have already melted off,” said Haitt. “For our part of the country most of our precept shows up in the form of March and April snowstorms, so we’re hoping for that again this year. We’re not in a panic but we are watching for those spring storms.”
Capture operations are one of the methods used to manage the population of wild sheep herds. They are also managed through hunting. Keeping the herds at a specific population target helps maintain the health of the herd and reduces comingling with domestic sheep. The current population objective for the Devil’s Canyon herd is 175. Around 263 sheep were counted during an aerial count conducted in July of 2016.
The Devil’s Canyon herd was specifically developed as a source herd and is commonly used to develop herds across the state. Sheep were transplanted into the Devil’s Canyon area in 1973. The herd flourished after subsequent transplants from the Missouri Breaks herd in Montana.
By Patti Carpenter