Bighorn Sheep Reintroductions

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Eighty-one California bighorn sheep are now adjusting to their new homes in four locations across the state thanks to cooperative efforts of several organizations and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Recent trap and transplant efforts took place from January 6 - 10 with 40 bighorns being trapped from the Lower John Day River area, 21 from the Lower Deschutes River area and 20 from McClellan Mountain. Of the eighty-one sheep captured, 20 went to the Fort Rock Basin, 20 went to Birch Creek in the Owhyee drainage, 20 went to Mutton Mountain on the Warm Springs Reservation and 21 went to the Sheepshead Mountains. At the end of the week, which started out a little shaky due to high winds, everyone was pleased with the outcome of their efforts and the boost to previously established herds. Craig Foster, ODFW District Biologist and capture boss for the operation said, "If every capture operation went like this one, the job would be easy."

California bighorns were extirpated from Oregon by about 1915, due to unregulated hunting and diseases contracted from domestic sheep. The first successful effort to re-introduce bighorn sheep to Oregon was completed in 1954, when 20 California bighorns were moved from Williams Lake, British Columbia to Hart Mountain. From 1969 through 1984, fixed traps were used on Hart Mountain and sheep were either baited in or driven into the traps for relocation. During that time, sheep were moved into the Steens area, Leslie Gulch, Abert Rim, Hadley Butte, Canyon Mountain and Aldrich Mountain. In 1985, linear drive nets and net guns were used, with net guns being the more efficient of the capture methods.

Since 1985, more than 1000 California bighorn sheep have been moved to over 20 locations within and outside of Oregon using the net gun method, which involves having a shooter fire a 10-foot square net over individual animals while a helicopter hovers 20-30 feet above ground. Once netted, "muggers" on the ground hobble the sheep, blindfold them, remove the nets and place each sheep in a custom built transport bag. The bags are crucial in keeping the sheep in a vertical position during flight to reduce the incidence of stress and respiratory complications. The bags are then hooked to a cable that hangs below the helicopter and transported to the base camp. As the bighorns arrive at base camp, teams of three people move each sheep to a tarp. The base camp crew monitors the animal's temperature, gives a variety of injections to ensure the sheep's continued good health, applies radio collars and ear tags to specific sheep and obtains blood and fecal samples for testing. In addition, experienced, licensed veterinarians were on hand to respond to any emergency situations, as well as monitor heart rate, respiration and perform a sonogram on each ewe to check for pregnancy. Expert crews are able to handle and move the sheep from underneath the helicopter to the truck in seven to eight minutes, which is why so many of the sheep thrive.

"I can't thank Hawkin-Power's capture crew and our base camp crew enough for their professionalism and extra effort" said Foster. "Everyone pitched in where they were needed which allowed us to reduce stress to the animals during handling and ensure that the sheep we moved were healthy."

"Overall, the project went very well," continued Foster. "The entire operation was conducted quickly and efficiently, which is important for the health of the sheep." Much of the success for this year's relocation efforts can be attributed to the capture crew from Hawkin-Powers, the company contracted to net gun the sheep and transport them by helicopter to the base camp locations, as well as the expertise of the base camp crew. The capture team consisted of ODFW staff from across the state, staff from the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation and staff from the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. Representatives from Oregon Hunter's Association and the Oregon Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep also assisted in trap and transplant efforts.

Funding for the 2002 California bighorn sheep project came from the State Chapter of the Oregon Hunter's Association (OHA), the Klamath Falls Chapter of OHA, Washington Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. In addition, a significant portion of project funding is generated from the sale of the annual Oregon Bighorn Sheep raffle and auction tags. In 2001, sales from the raffle tag raised over $42,000, while the auction tag generated $67,500. All proceeds from the sale of these tags go directly to Oregon's Bighorn Sheep Management Program. According to Don Whittaker, Bighorn Program Coordinator, raffle tag sales have raised over $367,000 since 1992 and the auction tag has raised over $849,000 since 1987. "These funds are crucial to the success of the bighorn sheep program," Whittaker said.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife will also be participating in continued efforts to repopulate Hell's Canyon with Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in February. <>Please see this site for photos.