• Click here for video of the bighorn capture.
• See a photo showcase of the capture at the sheep's journey to Nebraska.
• Look to The World-Herald in the coming days for more exclusive coverage of the effort to return this once-native species lost to overhunting and disease.
HINTON, Alberta — Nebraska paid Alberta nothing for the bighorn sheep that will create a new herd near Fort Robinson State Park.
That cooperation is the heritage of North America's wildlife conservation ethic, said Beth MacCallum of Hinton, who has studied the bighorns for nearly 30 years. "We share similar histories of exploiting and decimating species," she said, "and now we're helping each other meet our needs to bring them back."
The capture site was in the foothills along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, about 500 miles north of Spokane, Wash.
The old Teck coal mine has a surplus of bighorns. There are about 950 sheep on the sprawling property, which abuts Jasper National Park. Wildlife biologists have been concerned before that the herd density at the reclaimed mine was approaching capacity.
Alberta has exported 650 bighorns since 1922 to help restore herds across the U.S. and the Canadian West. The Alberta Rockies are known for high-quality bighorns, characterized by large bodies, high lamb-to-ewe ratios, high density and numbers, and strong population growth, MacCallum said.
The mine herds have not suffered from a pneumonia outbreak — a scourge in Nebraska and across the West — since scientists started studying them nearly 40 years ago.
The size and health of Alberta bighorns — and their ease of capture — make the sheep frequent targets for relocation projects. The provincial government has permitted the relocation of 327 sheep from the area since 1984.
This week's bighorns were the first taken from the mining site since 2007, and the first taken with net traps since 2001, when 32 sheep were captured and moved to Utah.
MacCallum said the reclaimed mine has been an excellent year-round habitat for the bighorns that colonized it. The site was empty; the forage grasses and salt licks provided the perfect nutrition; and there were few predators.
Lodgepole pine, spruce and fir forests blanket the surrounding hills.
Sheep moved in by the mid-1980s, despite continued truck-and-shovel mining and rail and road traffic.
Elk, mule deer, gray wolves, cougar, grizzly bear, coyote, red fox and weasels now roam the mine's woods and grasslands.
Steep, tall rock walls, natural or man-made, are vital to the security strategy of sheep and may have attracted the bighorns, she said. Bighorns require rocky escape terrain near quality forage and long fields of view unobstructed by trees.