Catch-and-release: It’s not just for fish anymore |

Catch-and-release: It’s not just for fish anymore

Scott Condon

Talk about taking one for the team.

Fifteen Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the herd that lives east of Basalt were recently captured, manhandled into trailers and released a couple of hours later in the rough terrain outside the western Colorado town of Debeque.

At least all the commotion was for a good cause. The Basalt herd is thriving, so the state Division of Wildlife culled a few to help create the new herd by Debeque, where sheep had historically lived but were forced out or killed.

The day began with about 20 state wildlife officers gathering at a small canyon up the Fryingpan Valley with an army of at least that many volunteers. While the horde stayed hidden behind vehicles and barricades, the sheep herd was lured to a banquet of hay and mashed apples.

The bighorns were shy at first, but not shy enough. About 25 of them took the bait, oblivious to the net hanging above.

When a wildlife officer released the net, all hell broke loose. The human horde leapt out of hiding and the sheep struggled to sprint in the opposite direction. Many of the animals got tangled in a knot of horns, hooves, legs and big white behinds. Rams weighing up to 200 pounds were the last to thrash.

On the steep red cliffs towering above the canyon bottom, other bighorns marched along precarious trails, peering down occasionally at the scene. They hadn’t been lured to the meal.

Volunteers and wildlife officers scrambled to separate the captured beasts to prevent deaths from suffocation and stress. One sheep was killed in the melee; others were bloodied and dazed.

The wildlife officers and volunteers worked efficiently to shackle animals and prevent them from kicking or running away. Once blindfolds were placed, the animals settled down. Each sheep was given a shot to battle lungworm.

Nine ewes, three lambs and three young rams were selected for relocation. Other captured sheep were tagged so wildlife officers can track their future movements. The experts are particularly interested in learning if sheep from the Basalt herd mix with other herds, said Kelly Wood, wildlife officer for the Basalt district.

Wood said the Basalt herd shouldn’t have any trouble absorbing the loss. It had an estimated 100 animals before the capture.

The 15 selected bighorns were loaded into a trailer and released in Debeque later that same day. Other sheep, including some from Basalt, have been released in the same area in prior years.

Russell George, who was the Division of Wildlife director at the time of the capture but has since been promoted to director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, was on hand for the capture. He called the bighorn relocation one of the most important projects the division undertakes.