LOVELL, Wyo. — A helicopter skimming above rocky outcroppings in the Bighorn Mountains is an unusual sight, but a pair of blindfolded bighorn sheep dangling from that helicopter is perhaps best described as surreal.
Yet that was just one in a string of bizarre images seen recently during a Wyoming Game and Fish Department operation that captured nine ewes and three rams from an area south of Devil’s Canyon, about 5 miles north of where U.S. Highway 14A crosses Bighorn Lake.
Adding to the strange atmosphere was the near silence maintained by more than 15 Game and Fish specialists as they worked with the captured sheep at a staging area in a campground near Cottonwood Canyon.
“I don’t want any idle chatter,” said Kevin Hurley, bighorn sheep coordinator for Wyoming Game and Fish, speaking during a morning safety meeting.
“We want this whole thing overall to be very quiet, or as quiet as it can be,” Hurley said, explaining that shouting could stress the sheep. He acknowledged that helicopters aren’t very quiet.
Hurley accomplished his goal — to capture a dozen sheep from the southern area around Devil’s Canyon and release them more than 350 miles away in the Seminoe Mountains, near Rawlins.
About 20 sheep from Oregon were released in the same area two months ago, and plans had called for an additional 40 sheep from Utah to be transplanted in the Seminoes to help re-establish a herd there.
But when Utah wildlife managers had no extra sheep to send, Hurley decided to capture from a small group established between Cottonwood Canyon and Highway 14A, along with a few sheep from just north of there.
Those bighorns were at the southern end of a large group of about 160 spread across the Devil’s Canyon area, where managers have a long-term herd objective of about 200 sheep.
“We’re not comfortable with the potential for contact” between wild sheep at the southern end of that range and domestic sheep trailed along Highway 14A, Hurley said.
Contagious pneumonia outbreaks can devastate bighorn sheep herds. Montana wildlife officials killed at least 60 infected bighorn sheep near Bonner last month to limit the spread of pneumonia, and may have to kill up to 30 more.
“We don’t want the problem, or even the possibility. It’s not good for us or for the bighorn sheep,” said Wendy Smith, whose family moves up to 1,600 ewes each year along Highway 14A between Powell and their summer pasture in the Bighorn Mountains.
Smith, who is also a teacher at Powell High School, observed Friday’s capture operation with 13 seniors from her natural resource management class.
“It’s a great opportunity for them to see what Game and Fish does with the sheep, and how they manage them,” she said.
Part of that work included drawing blood and swabbing nose and throat cultures from each sheep. Lab tests will check for pneumonia and other diseases, and help wildlife managers learn more about the overall health of the herd.
But before they can be swabbed, measured and assessed, the sheep must be captured, which is not an easy trick when chasing an animal that can bound up craggy rock walls with astonishing ease.
Working with Game and Fish specialists, private contractors from Leading Edge Aviation in Lewiston, Idaho, used a helicopter to herd each sheep into a spot where a shooter could fire a net over the animal.
As the sheep keeps running, it becomes tangled in the net, and “muggers” jump out of the copter to subdue and secure it for transport back to the staging area. Sky Aviation, of Worland, used a second helicopter to help with sheep transport.
The goal is to place leather or nylon straps on the sheep’s legs as quickly as possible, preventing them from getting away or hurting themselves or the muggers, Hurley told the Powell students.
“They can kick, and there are certain places on the body you don’t want to get kicked,” he said.
Tom Easterly, a Game and Fish biologist from Greybull, worked Friday as a mugger, a job he learned in the 1990s, while moonlighting for Hawkins & Powers, the now-defunct aviation company.
“The net can get hung up on rocks or brush and break their neck or legs,” Easterly said, so muggers must work to avoid injuring themselves or the sheep.
Wes Livingston, of Cody, also worked at Hawkins & Powers before becoming a net-gunner for Leading Edge.
Strapped into the open cockpit of a highly maneuverable Hughes 500D helicopter, Livingston waits for just the right moment to fire his net, which expands into a square about 10 feet on each side.
Friday’s work went smoothly, with success early in the day as Livingston returned again and again to a draw in Cottonwood Canyon, just out of sight of the staging area.
During a lunch break, he explained to Hurley that several sheep had taken refuge in a cave near the top of the draw.
“We finally put a man in the cave and found two more that were in there,” Livingston said.
Hobbled and bagged
The sheep are blindfolded, hobbled and cinched into a custom bag attached to a line below the copter. Then they are flown back to the staging area.
Three-man teams move each sheep to a tarp where the animal is held securely, preventing it from struggling during the medical check, which includes monitoring their body temperature.
“Once they feel restrained, they don’t do as much” to try to escape, Hurley said.
Even in frigid weather, at least one sheep became overheated from running to the top of a canyon, and was briefly plunged into a snowbank to cool it down.
After their exam, the sheep were carried to a modified horse trailer — known as the “ewe haul” — for their trip south. They were held overnight before being released on the southeastern side of the Seminoe Mountains.
Saturday’s release was “picture-perfect,” said Dennie Hammer, Game and Fish spokesman.
Injuries to people and animals are rare, despite the risky nature of the process. One of the 20 Oregon sheep released near Rawlins in December died within a week from injuries apparently sustained during its initial capture.
The process also isn’t cheap, with costs of nearly $4,000 per transplanted sheep, Hurley estimated. That breaks down to about $1,100 for helicopter and capture contractors, $300 in lab work and $2,500 or more for refurbished satellite tracking collars for each bighorn.
Besides the approximately $50,000 in hard costs, the department also has additional expenses for its own personnel and equipment, he said.
Funding for the Seminoe transplant project comes partly from the Wyoming Governor’s Big Game License Coalition and the Wild Sheep Foundation, along with its various local and regional chapters.
Wildlife managers are hoping that the Oregon and Devil’s Canyon sheep will be more adapted to conditions in the Seminoes than others that fared poorly after being transplanted there in past decades.
Hurley said that ewes are preferred for transplanting because a single ram can breed with several ewes, and rams tend to wander off in search of a ram band to join after their third summer.
Sheep transplant operations began in Wyoming in 1934, and since 1949, more than 1,500 bighorn sheep have been transplanted into or within the state, while 400 have been sent to Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon and South Dakota.
Wyoming has 15 distinct bighorn herd units, with eight core, native herds containing 90 percent of the state’s 6,200 sheep. The other seven transplant herds are in areas where wildlife managers are working to build new or restored populations.
About 4,000 sheep live in the Absaroka Mountains west of Cody, and make up the “stronghold of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the country,” Hurley said.