Recently, I had the unforgettable opportunity to help study some of the bighorn sheep and mule deer in the Dubois area, up close. It was an incredible experience!
Along with several other volunteers, I assisted in a joint project of the National Bighorn Sheep Center, the University of Wyoming, and the state Game & Fish Department to monitor the body condition and migration patterns of these wonderful animals. Our job as volunteers was to help collect the sheep delivered by helicopter, and to protect both the biologists and the animals by holding them still while they were being examined.
Last year, several ewes were collared in order to track their movements and recapture them annually for physical examinations. A helicopter crew from New Zealand was hired to capture the sheep and bring them to the exam area near Dubois.
The crew used a helicopter and net gun to catch the sheep. Once the sheep were caught in the net, two muggers (yes, that is what they are called!) jumped from the helicopter to blindfold and hobble the sheep. They also wrapped them in a sturdy tarp for transport to the exam area.
The helicopter pilot’s skills were impressive, to say the least! He very gently laid the sheep on the ground, where volunteers picked them up and carried them to the biologists who would examine them. Each animal had an extensive examination, which included measuring their body fat, checking for pregnancy using an ultrasound, and collecting blood, ear, nose, and throat swab samples to test them for disease.
Most of the sheep were surprisingly calm throughout the process, especially considering that no tranquilizer was used.
The collars were then adjusted or replaced as needed. After this, the sheep were moved to an open area, where their blindfolds and hobbles were removed and they were set free. Volunteers were also able to help with freeing the ewes.
Once released, the ewes did not waste any time running to rejoin their herd. They are amazingly fast runners.
The collars on the ewes allow the biologists to track them and their lambs throughout the year and to monitor their health as well as their migration patterns.
As a new part of this ongoing statewide project, several mule deer in the Upper Wind River Valley have also been caught, examined, and collared with the same objective.
I would not have imagined that I would ever be able to get so close to bighorn sheep or be able to actually help with a project like this. I hope that the long-term results from this research will help ensure the health of these magnificent animals, and increase their population.
© 2016 Karen Sullivan. Image credits: Karen Sullivan (top), Nick Dobric (remainder)
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