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Baiting a batch of bighorns

Jeremy Heiman

The switches released with a clink, the net dropped – and all hell broke loose.

Some 30 bighorn sheep struggled and bucked under the 80-foot rope net. Though the ground was frozen solid, the frantic pawing of their hooves raised a dust cloud.

A mature ram, neck twisted back and muzzle jammed through the net, gaped wild-eyed at the sky as he tried to rise to his feet. The net pressed him to the ground.

A crew of volunteers was on the animals in seconds, kneeling as they disentangled hooves and horns from the net in the frosty morning air. Talking softly, some of the volunteers and wildlife officials steadied the animals while others secured their flailing legs and put blindfolds onto their heads.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife organized and pulled off the capture of the Rocky Mountain bighorns Tuesday at the Toner Creek Tract of the Basalt State Wildlife area. About 50 volunteers and 20 wildlife officials participated.

The captured sheep will be traded to the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources for an equal number of desert bighorn sheep. Though a few of the sheep captured yesterday were released, 22 are already in their new home, at Flaming Gorge in northeastern Utah.

The desert bighorns will be captured in the San Raphael Swell area in February, and will be released in Coyote Wash in the Dolores Canyon in extreme western Colorado.

“It actually came off remarkably well,” said Craig Wescoatt, Eagle District Wildlife Manager for the DOW. The Utah agency got the number of bighorns and the mix of rams, ewes and lambs it wanted. And more important, all the animals, volunteers and wildlife officers avoided injury.

The net was stretched on 10-foot poles over a small, flat bench of land in the Toner Creek area. Kelly Wood, the DOW’s Basalt district wildlife manager, had been baiting the sheep with apple mash under the net for three weeks, to get them accustomed to the net.

The bait was also used to conceal a medication for lungworm, a parasite that plagues Colorado’s herd of Rocky Mountain bighorns. The worming and trapping are both done in the winter because the herd is more widely dispersed and has easier access to forage during the warmer months, Wood said.

“It’s easy to get ’em in with bait in the winter,” she said. With about 100 sheep in the herd, the Toner Creek Tract was near its capacity, Wood said. If the range is overpopulated, the sheep can overgraze, damaging the vegetation.

Once the sheep’s feet were secured, Utah wildlife officials examined them and attached ear tags to the ones they selected. All of the animals were injected with vaccines for bacteria, parasites and an organism that causes pneumonia. Blood was drawn, and biologists checked their teeth.

“In general, they look like they’re in really good health,” said DOW veterinary technician Kate Larsen. “We expect they’ll get to Utah and do what sheep do best.”

Charlie Greenwood, a wildlife biologist for Utah’s DWR, said the Colorado sheep would supplement the Flaming Gorge herd and increase its genetic diversity. That herd is now made up of animals transplanted from an area near Gunnison and from Wyoming’s Whiskey Basin.

“We’re just trying to fill in the gaps,” Greenwood said.

Several of the captured ewes that remained at Toner Creek were fitted with bright yellow collars. DOW biologist Gene Byrne said the yellow collars are intended to be visible to hikers, who can inform the division when they spot these animals.

“We think some of these sheep are going up onto the Red Table or even the Holy Cross Wilderness,” Byrne said. The agency wants to understand how widely the Basalt sheep are traveling and whether they are mixing with other herds.

Rocky Mountain bighorns may have been the most numerous grazing animals in Colorado, outnumbering deer and elk when white settlers first arrived, Byrne said. Diseases carried by livestock quickly reduced the herds to a fraction of their former numbers.

Through the DOW’s efforts, Colorado’s herds have recovered to the extent that a few bighorn hunting licenses are issued each year. The DOW has trapped and transplanted over 3,000 sheep since the early 1970s, Byrne said.


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