Bighorn Sheep Relocated to Improve Numbers, Diversify Herd Genetics

Two large groups of California bighorn sheep were captured and relocated in an effort to increase the population and improve the genetic diversity of the ungulate herds. Biologists from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) performed the sheep swap last week.

California Bighorn Sheep, Not Californian Bighorn Sheep

The sheep were relocated in two groups—one batch of 15 sheepies was moved from Deschutes River Canyon to Alvord Peaks in Harney County, and another group of 20 was captured at John Day River Canyon and released at McClellan in Grant County. Both newly-relocated groups are expected to quickly integrate with existing herds, thus diversifying the creatures’ genetic pool.

“Research […] shows we need to mix up the genetics of the herd,” said the ODFW’s Don Whittaker in a statement. “Higher genetic diversity leads to better population performance and we hope to see population increases, too.”

A third batch of bighorns were released near the Klamath River Canyon on land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Bighorn sheep have not been seen below the JC Boyle Dam since the species was wiped out by hunting and disease in the 1940s.

Quick! To the Sheep-O-Copter!

To capture the sheep, a special helicopter-mounted net-firing gun was used, because the ODFW now has Q on staff, apparently. After the sheep were netted, they were blindfolded and restrained—this is, ostensibly, intended to calm the animals. It seems like after being ensnared in a net fired from a helicopter, being tied up and blindfolded would maybe have the exact opposite effect, but what do I know? I’m no sheep expert.

Also, why are they called "bighorns"?

Also, why are they called “bighorns”?

After being sufficiently “calmed,” the sheep were then lifted via the same helicopter to a second location where ODFW biologists and large animal veterinarians gave the critters a once-over. Every bighorn was checked for diseases, and many were fitted with tracking transmitters. These GPS collars will allow the ODFW to monitor their locations and make future aerial and ground surveys of the herds easier.

“An Iconic Species”

“These magnificent animals are an iconic species in southeast Oregon’s mountain country,” Tom Collom, Klamath Falls’ district wildlife biologist, said in a statement released by the ODFW. “This week’s operations will help maintain healthy herds of bighorn sheep and continue the state’s restoration efforts, which have been in the works since the 1950s.”

Unchecked hunting and numerous diseases led to the statewide extinction of bighorn sheep in Oregon in the 1940s. The state’s first bighorn relocation project took place in 1954, bringing 20 California bighorns from British Columbia (again, they’re not Californian bighorn sheep) to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge. Annually, the ODFW relocates between 20 and 80 bighorn sheep as part of an ongoing effort to create healthy sheep populations in Oregon.

Photo credit: dust and fog / Foter / CC BY