Published Thursday, February 20, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 12:16 pm
Bighorn sheep rounded up by copter, relocated to add genetic diversity to state's wild herds

• Photo slideshow: Bighorn sheep capture-2014

• Photo slideshow: Bighorn sheep-2012

• Videos: On the road with 41 bighorns-Feb. 19, 2014; Bighorn sheep capture-Feb. 20, 2014

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McGREW, Neb. — Three trailers rolled out of the Wildcat Hills carrying hopes Wednesday of reinvigorating two bighorn sheep herds in northwest Nebraska.

When the first horse trailer's door swung open a bit more than two hours and 100 miles later, the bighorns bounding across the grassland at Fort Robinson State Park represented the first infusion of a new genetic strain in Nebraska's oldest wild sheep herd.

Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologists hope the long-distance transfusion boosts an aging Fort Robinson herd of Rocky Mountain bighorns whose future was not promising.

The 16 newcomers — who started the day dangling from a helicopter over the rugged hills and buttes towering above the North Platte River near McGrew — immediately increased the park's bighorn population by about 60 percent.

“We're doing it for the people of Nebraska,'' said Todd Nordeen of Alliance, district wildlife manager for Game and Parks. “We're bringing back an elite, native species that was gone for about a century.''

Nordeen led a team of more than 50 Game and Parks colleagues and others who operated a MASH-style field clinic for the sheep with the precision of a pit crew.

“It's NASCAR for bighorns,'' said Kylie Cone, the Game and Parks conservation technician who monitors the Hubbard's Gap herd at McGrew.

Starting shortly after sunrise, a helicopter crew buzzed buttes and circled canyons in pursuit of bighorns. Captured in nets fired by an airborne gunner, the sheep were hobbled, blindfolded, bound into a laced jacket and airlifted to the processing site on a ranch owned by Terry Brown.

The sheep gently swung like a pendulum beneath the copter as they arrived singly or in groups of as many as four.

Crews carried the bundled bighorns to elevated sawhorses where they were processed.

At least seven people quickly and quietly went to work on each bighorn. Each had designated tasks.

At one station, Micah Ellstrom punched a number tag into a ewe's ear and attached a matching leather collar equipped with a high frequency radio transmitter. Rams received a GPS collar. (Technicians keep tabs on the sheep by tracking their radio signals.)

Simultaneously, Brian Perks inserted an oxygen hose into a nostril. Bob Jatzcak lifted the sheep's head up by its horns for veterinarian Bill Stump to inject antibiotics and draw blood. Rick Brandt clipped a notch out of an ear and pulled tufts of hair for DNA samples. Matt Rumsey and Jon Royle held the bighorn in place.

At the tail end, Rick Arnold took fecal samples. Sometimes, Christina Ploog and Nicole Linafelter from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo provided coldwater enemas to cool overheating sheep.

Nearly 70 sheep went through the process on a grassy slope half-ringed by bluffs.

Twenty-six were snatched from the thriving Hubbard Gap's herd and relocated to the Pine Ridge.

Three rams, 12 ewes and one female lamb were taken to Fort Robinson. Two rams and eight ewes were taken to the nearby Bighorn Wildlife Management Area to supplement the Barrel Butte herd.

Another 40 were captured, given antibiotics and a radio collar and released to rejoin their herd.

Nordeen said the goal of the capture project is to increase the number of lambs in the Fort Robinson and Barrel Butte herds that survive to adulthood.

Half of the Fort Robinson's rams, ewes and lambs died during an outbreak of a bacterial pathogen known as pastuerella pneumonia in 2005. Two years later, the epidemic hit again, killing half of the remaining sheep.

In 2012, only one of a dozen newborn lambs at Fort Robinson survived. Nearby at Barrel Butte, only three of 31 lambs survived. Pastuerella pneumonia was suspected in most of the deaths.

Not all Nebraska herds suffer annual die-offs. The new Sowbelly Canyon herd near Harrison — relocated from Canada two years ago — and the Hubbard's Gap herd have recently avoided pneumonia deaths. Despite early respiratory ailment deaths, the Hubbard's Gap herd has been Nebraska's most successful in terms of growth.

The death of one yearling ewe that faded suddenly during processing cast a glum tone over the site Wednesday.

“I hate it, but this is part of the cost of bringing a species back to its native range,'' Nordeen said.

Game and Parks' goal is to establish free-ranging herds in the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills for viewing and hunting.

Nordeen said Nebraska's bighorn program could not succeed without the cooperation of landowners who welcome bighorns and wildlife biologists on their property. Nebraska's landscape is 97 percent privately owned.

Funding for the state's reintroduction program and Wednesday's relocation campaign comes exclusively from donations and more than $1 million raised from bighorn hunting permits periodically sold at auction or by lottery.

Nordeen's crew plans to capture, process and release 12 bighorns at Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area near Gering today.

On the road with 41 bighorns, February 2014

Contact the writer: David Hendee    |   402-444-1127

David covers a variety of news across Nebraska, particularly natural resources and rural issues and the State Game and Parks Commission.

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