FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The helicopter hovered low, allowing a crew member to shoot a net over a desert bighorn sheep in the southeastern Nevada mountains. A “mugger” hurriedly jumped from the aircraft and ran over to the sheep, giving the animal a shot to calm it down before tying its legs with leather strapping, blindfolding it, putting it in a sack, and hoisting it into the air with three other sheep.
With that, the iconic big game animals started their journey to historic rangeland in southern Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The sheep dangled in the air for a matter of minutes before being carried to a table to get their vitals checked and then hauled in trailers to their new home – a roughly seven-hour trip.
Across the West, states often swap animals to restore or boost the local populations. Utah has given moose to Colorado and pronghorn antelope to Arizona. Colorado mountain lions have been sent to Utah, and Arizona and New Mexico have traded sheep.
“We’ll just take them as often as we’re offered them until we meet our objectives,” said Cameron McQuivey, wildlife biologist for the Utah monument.
Nevada last week gave 50 wild sheep to Utah to help reduce the stress level in Nevada’s herds, which comprise about 10,000 animals statewide. State wildlife managers try to keep the sheep population near Henderson to between 250 and 300 to prevent the animals from having to compete for resources and from getting stress-related canker sores in their mouths and throats, said Doug Nielsen, a spokesman for the Nevada Division of Wildlife.
Crews delivered the first set of 25 sheep captured from the River Mountains between Henderson and Boulder City in Nevada. That group was taken from a smaller geographic area than the second, and the herd was somewhat accustomed to helicopter noise from aerial tours and encounters with people from frequently wandering into local communities.
The second set of 25 from the Muddy Mountains was from a larger geographic area characterized by rocky cliffs, steep slopes and narrow canyons where the sheep tried to escape. Breezier weather didn’t help the pilot, either. Those sheep were being released Friday about 30 miles from the first release site.
Each group had its blood, temperature and other vitals tested before making the trip to Utah.
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has a goal of no more than 1,000 wild sheep throughout three units in the southern part of the state that include the Grand Staircase monument and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The sheep from Nevada will be used to try to increase the gene pool and create a bridge between existing herds that live among rocky cliffs and outcroppings but haven’t mixed.
Diseases from domestic sheep, habitat change, predation, unregulated hunting and other factors have decimated desert bighorn sheep populations across the West. Utah had herds of less than a dozen sheep each in the 1970s before it began bringing them in from other areas.
“Historical accounts suggest they were really abundant – one of the main animals you find on petroglyphs,” said Dustin Schaible, wildlife biologist at the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. “It’s native sheep range, (so) we’re trying to re-establish them in a lot of those areas.”
Nevada’s capture and translocation program began in 1967 when the state had about 3,000 wild sheep. About 900 sheep from the population around Henderson have been sent elsewhere. Nielsen said the state makes sure the sheep are going to areas with a reliable water source and where they have a good chance of surviving. The populations can be supplemented as they grow.
The sheep were outfitted with radio collars and ear tags. Four of them have GPS devices that record the sheep’s movement every six hours, but officials won’t be able to see that data until the devices fall off in two years.
At the end of their journey to Utah, the sheep were eager to break free. They bolted out of the doors of the trailer and headed southwest in the direction they came from, eventually disappearing into the landscape.