Nine Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep have been added to a new herd being established by Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains of central Colorado. The sheep join 13 bighorns that were moved into the mountains of northeastern Saguache County in a similar operation in 2010.
Prior to the 2010 transplants, the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains had not had bighorn sheep since the 1980's. Sheep populations in the southern Sangre have thrived in recent years and provide a good source of sheep for the transplant operation.
"This is traditional bighorn sheep habitat and it's an exciting part of our work to get to help restore this population," said Dan Prenzlow, southeast region wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. "The rest is up to the sheep, but we think the habitat is very good to support them as this small population grows for generations to come."
The reintroduction project involved the use of a helicopter on both the capture and release end. The bighorn are netted by helicopter crews at the capture location and then flown off steep mountainsides to a nearby staging area. They're then transported north in horse trailers to a second staging area near the release site. The helicopter picks them up again and transports them to the steep alpine terrain of their new home near Hunts Peak.
"It's a tricky helicopter operation," said Brian Dreher, senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in southeast Colorado. "The operation can only be done if weather conditions are just right."
Sheep are captured and released at elevations above 12,000 feet above sea level. Thin air at that elevation challenges even the most steady-handed helicopter pilots and Quicksilver Air is one of the few contractors that will undertake the work.
The project to bring bighorn back to the northern Sangre would not have been possible without assistance from the National Park Service at the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve and the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.
"We've been able to work with the Preserve, east of the national park, to get bighorn from the alpine habitat, which means the sheep we're transplanting are naturally suited to the habitat they're being transplanted to," explained Dreher. "We also had tremendous cooperation from the Forest Service to allow us to put the transplanted sheep into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area."
All the sheep are examined by a veterinarian at the capture staging area. Biologists take blood and DNA samples and fit the sheep with radio telemetry tracking collars and ear tags. The collars will help biologists track the new arrivals and assess their habitat usage as the new herd becomes established. In addition to distribution across the habitat, airplane monitoring will be used for several years to help biologists keep track of survival and reproduction.
More information about bighorn sheep and the Colorado Parks and Wildlife bighorn conservation program can be found at: http://wildlife.state.co.us/WildlifeSpecies/Profiles/Mammals/Pages/BighornSheep.aspx