By any measure, it was an unusual day for 46 bighorn sheep residing on BLM-managed public land near the Missouri River north of Winifred, Mont.
This particular late-winter morning dawned gray and cold with a thin blanket of fresh snow. Prompted by their need-to-feed, the bighorns stirred early and moved from their bedding areas in the steep coulees common to the Missouri Breaks. They zigzagged their way to the snow covered benches where they would browse on the variety of grasses and forbs that still held a little late winter nutrition.
That’s where the routine nature of their day ended.
Suddenly, a helicopter broke from the cloud cover to the west and held its position over the bighorns as they ran toward the inherent safety of the steep draws.
In what had to be a quick (but puzzling) series of events, some sheep were netted, blindfolded, hobbled, bagged, flown to a transfer site, held on straw bales, poked, probed, swabbed, vaccinated, and placed in a horse trailer.
Later that day, when the trailer door next opened, they bolted into their new habitat on the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area near Helena, somewhat ruffled but much better off for the experience.
By the day’s end the BLM’s Lewistown Field Office and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFWP) had completed a flawless bighorn sheep capture, transfer and release.
The goal of the cooperative effort was to move approximately 50 sheep (mostly ewes and lambs) from public land deep in the Missouri Breaks north of Winifred, to other key locations selected by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
The BLM and MFWP used a contract helicopter with a professional netting crew to net the sheep. Throughout the day, the pilot and crew proved themselves extremely capable. The pilot would maneuver the copter over the running sheep until a gunner, shooting a hand-held net gun (a .308 rifle converted to shoot a folded net rather than a bullet) could get a clear shot at a selected animal or a group of sheep. The net gun casts a net that measures about 15 feet by 15 feet, and on several occasions, multiple sheep were caught with one shot.
After netting a bighorn, the helicopter would land and crew members would quickly hobble and blindfold each sheep. With those tasks completed, each sheep was then placed in a nylon transport bag, suspended below the copter with a long line and flown to a common transfer site. The helicopter could easily long line four or five sheep at a time.
At the transfer site, the helicopter would gently lower the sheep back to the ground, where biologists from MTFWP and BLM and other ground crew members would remove the bagged sheep from the long line. With the sheep still blindfolded and hobbled, blood samples and nose and throat swabs were taken and each sheep was given vitamins and antibiotics.
The ground crew would then move the sheep to MFWP trailers where the hobbles and blindfolds were removed and the sheep were ready for transport to their new habitats.
According to Matt Comer, a BLM wildlife biologist in Lewistown, “We had originally scheduled two days to complete the project, but at the end of the first day we had 46 sheep captured, sampled, vaccinated, loaded in trailers and on their way to other locations so we called the project completed.”
It was a very efficient operation; the helicopter crew, biologists and other crew members worked quickly to minimize any undue stress on the sheep (whose health was closely monitored throughout the operation). The effort couldn’t have been more successful, with 46 sheep quickly captured, transported and released with no injuries or mortalities.
This cooperative project was a win/win/win for the BLM, MFWP and Montana’s sportsmen. There is room for additional sheep in other suitable habitats and the sheep herd in the Breaks is expanding to the point where mixing with domestic sheep is a greater concern.
“It is essential to avoid letting wild sheep mix with domestic sheep because of the near certainty of transmitting disease into the wild sheep. Bighorns are hardy animals and can withstand a lot of weather and habitat variations. However, they cannot survive the variety of diseases they pick up from domestic sheep (including respiratory disease, pneumonia, parasites and pink eye),” Comer added. On numerous occasions, some of these diseases have proven fatal to entire herds of bighorns.
While the sheep hunting units in the Missouri Breaks have become the “units of choice” for sheep hunters (because of the trophy size attained by some of the rams), transporting this number of sheep out of the Breaks will not decrease hunting opportunities. The current sheep population in this area is above the unit goals set by MFWP, and hunting, combined with natural mortality, is not keeping up with the harvest needed to keep sheep numbers in line with their available habitat. Limited hunter/public access is the primary factor limiting sheep harvest in these units.
At the end of a long day, the trailer doors were opened and 46 bighorn sheep bound away to find themselves in great new habitat; still along the Missouri River, but now in the Beartooth Wildlife Management Area north of Helena, Mont.