Chaos reigns at bighorn trapping |

Chaos reigns at bighorn trapping

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

About 25 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep listened to their bellies rather than their brains Wednesday and were lured to a meal of hay and mashed apples, hand-delivered by state wildlife officers.

For one of the sheep, it would be a fatal mistake.

The sheep mowed down the goodies that were laid out in a flat spot tucked in a little canyon off the Fryingpan River about five miles from Basalt. Red cliffs soared hundreds of feet above the feeding grounds. The entire landscape was covered with a thick blanket of snow.

The mix of rams, lambs and ewes that came to the Colorado Division of Wildlife’s party were oblivious to the net hovering over their heads.

One second it was the picture of tranquility. The next, all hell broke loose.

When a game warden tripped the switch that dropped the net, most of the sheep stayed upright and desperately tried to sprint away from the horde of humans that emerged from behind vehicles and barriers.

Most of the sheep ended up in a massive tangle of hoofs, legs, horns and muzzles. The heads and necks of some struggling animals were twisted at awkward angles. The scene looked like a mosh pit at a punk-rock concert, or a peculiar game of Twister.

Powerful rams weighing up to 200 pounds were the last to stay on their hooves. They strained in vain to free themselves from the net.

Close to 20 state wildlife officers hailing from Grand Junction to Vail and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley led an even larger army of volunteers to the net. Half the army scrambled to untangle the sheep. The other workers formed small teams to hold sheep down, slip blindfolds over their eyes and tie shackles around their legs.

“I was thinking, what in the hell do I do? It was my first time helping with something like this,” said Heather Stillman, a volunteer from Salt Lake City. She was in the Roaring Fork Valley visiting a friend who works for the wildlife division and was recruited for the effort.

There was purpose, as well as method, to the madness. The Fryingpan herd of mountain sheep has grown large enough that some are being relocated to other parts of the state to build new herds, explained Kelly Wood, wildlife officer for the Basalt region

The wildlife division relocated some of the Fryingpan sheep three years ago. Both times, the transplants were taken to the Debeque area, east of Grand Junction. Mountain sheep once lived there but were killed off.

Wood estimated there were about 100 animals in the Fryingpan herd. The sheep are healthy because they are regularly given food laced with medicine to combat lungworm, which commonly afflicts them.

All the trapped animals were given shots for lungworm Wednesday. Fifteen sheep were selected for relocation. The other animals were released after being tagged for future identification. Wood said the DOW wants to learn if sheep from the Fryingpan Valley mingle with other herds in Vail and elsewhere.

The wildlife officers and volunteers took special care when releasing the big rams from the net. They would push and pull a thrashing beasts to the edge of the net. One person, sometimes more, would hold it down while the shot was administered and its ear was tagged.

Then an officer would warn everyone around to beware, and the ram would be released. The beasts would scramble to their feet and sprint away, looking back every now and then to see if their tormentors were in pursuit. Some ewes were also released to keep the Fryingpan herd viable.

Gary and Laurie Krizman of Grand Junction volunteered to help with the trapping. They became interested when their daughter, a biology major at Mesa State College, helped track the new herd at Debeque.

The Krizmans tended to a ewe that was trapped under the net and separated from most of the other sheep. Once they blindfolded the struggling beast it settled down. They worked efficiently to shackle her and prepare her for transport. Laurie stayed with the subdued animal while Gary went to help elsewhere.

“She’s doing good ” grunting and growling,” said Laurie while keeping a firm but gentle grip on her charge.

Chrissy Elmblad used a day of her Christmas break from the University of Colorado to help with the sheep trapping. Her dad is a wildlife officer from Grand Junction.

She kept a captured lamb, tagged with number 188, calm and subdued.

“It was intimidating a little bit,” she said of the chaotic initial scene when people were running around and the sheep were thrashing.

“I was sort of sad to see them so scared,” Elmblad said.

That was a thought on the minds of several volunteers, although most agreed that the temporary terror the sheep suffered was justifiable because it was for a good cause.

But a couple of sights disheartened everyone involved ” volunteers and wildlife officers alike. One large ram wrestled free from captors while it still had shackles on its hind legs. The ram ran relatively unimpeded down a hill and up a snowy slope at the base of a cliff. But when the sheep trail became steep, it had trouble negotiating the terrain and slid backward during repeated efforts.

The shackled ram was last seen heading down a gulch at the base of the cliff. Wood expressed confidence that the ram would either kick free of the shackles or would be lured back by food from wildlife officers and freed.

One volunteer said she hoped that assessment was correct. Otherwise the day’s events might be “a death sentence” for the shackled ram.

The stampede that occurred after the net fell killed one sheep. Wildlife officers said it likely either suffocated or succumbed to stress. Other sheep emerged bloody and battered, like fighters from a Battle Royale.

Wildlife officers warned the volunteers before the trapping that there was a risk to the animals.

“Sometimes that’s part of it,” Wood said of the death. “Anytime you handle wildlife, that’s a possibility.”

Russell George, director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, came from his home in Rifle to observe the trapping. He said the program is one of the most important the wildlife division undertakes.

The trapping successfully netted nine fertile ewes, three lambs and three young rams that hadn’t established territory in the Fryingpan Valley. They were loaded in a trailer and shipped off the Debeque for release in a new land in a new year.

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