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Bighorns rounded up, transplanted

A bighorn sheep bolts out of a trailer after being captured, fitted with a radio collar and transplanted to an area about 15 to 20 miles northeast of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

After months of preparation and Mother Nature's cooperation, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department wrapped up an approximate $22,000 relocation project involving 14 bighorn sheep in Theodore Roosevelt National Park's North Unit Monday.

Disease prevention and traffic dangers played a key role in officials opting for a capture and transplant of the bighorns.

"We had no problems ... and things went pretty smoothly," said Brett Wiedmann, NDGF bighorn sheep biologist. "The deep snow helped. They can't run very fast so the helicopter could catch them a lot easier so it was kind of nice. They hit that snow and they just stop like it was mud."

In 2006, 19 Montana bighorns were transplanted onto U.S. Forest Service land east of the park's North Unit and after about two and a half years, the sheep started wintering in the park.

Wiedmann said officials hoped the animals would not cross into the park due to traffic on U.S. Highway 85, but last year, the sheep moved west, eventually hitting the 8-foot-high park fence, causing them to gather near the highway.

Three ewes were lost to vehicle accidents.

"Our goal was to manage it at about 50 because there is a lot of habitat east of the park," Wiedmann said. "As soon as we started losing them to vehicles, now we're going to try to maintain them at 20 to 30 animals."

By about 3 p.m. Monday, NDGF had released the first group consisting of eight bighorn sheep and was slated to release the next six-member group within an hour.

The sheep were taken from five groups that Wiedmann had monitored for the last few weeks.

After being captured with a net gun, each sheep was bound, blindfolded and placed in a capture bag then transported by helicopter to a trailer for relocation.

Upon landing at the trailer area, the animal was fitted with a radio collar and examined by a veterinarian who estimated the age and inspected the sheep's teeth.

Dr. Dan Grove, NDGF wildlife veterinarian on hand during the operation, said the process "went off without a hitch" and all the animals appeared to be healthy.

"All of them were really good flesh so they had a good layer of fat underneath their skin," Grove said. "Some of the older ones were a little bit thinner at times, but still well within normal range for this time of year. They're surviving the winter pretty well."

Grove said the animals were not anesthetized as blindfolding and hobbling the bighorns prevents them from being a danger to themselves or others.

After the blindfolds and hobbles were taken off, the sheep were transplanted about 50 miles, "as the crow flies," from their original location, Wiedmann said.

"They all did really well," Grove said, adding no animals were injured or died during the process.

NDGF officials also radio-collared 16 bighorns, 12 on Sunday and four on Monday, a process Wiedmann said is usually done each winter.

Wiedmann estimates about 70 bighorns are sporting the device, and collars stay on the sheep until they stop working or the animal dies.

Funding the operation came entirely from the Wild Sheep Foundation Midwest Chapter, Wiedmann said.

As part of a 10-year agreement with the WSFMC, the NDGF receives grants and funding, with a large portion of the money coming from a yearly auction of a bighorn sheep license.

Last year's auction fetched $40,000, all of which was donated back to North Dakota bighorn sheep conservation and management, said WSFMC President Jerry Mariska.

"At this moment, there's probably more wild sheep in the lower 48 states than there has been since the turn of the century," said Mariska, who has been a member of WSFMC for 20 years.

When bighorn herds exceed 40 members, the NDGF will typically move a few of the animals to other herds or start new ones as bigger herds carry greater risk for deadly diseases, something Wiedmann cites as the number one challenge to wild-sheep management.

Depending on reproduction rates and lambing successes, plans are to keep capturing offspring from the same herd, moving them to different areas of the Badlands, Wiedmann said.

All the sheep captured and transplanted during this go-around were young, ranging from about 1 to 3 years old, Wiedmann said.

"Just what we wanted," Wiedmann said. "You want to get the youngest sheep you can."