• 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's wild herds of bighorn sheep are adding an international branch to the family tree.
Forty-one bighorns are moving from the Canadian Rockies to a new range on the Sowbelly Ranch near Fort Robinson State Park in northwest Nebraska.
The sheep were captured this week in a flurry of organized mayhem designed to yield the root stock of Nebraska's fifth transplanted bighorn herd.
"We're bringing a native, majestic species back to Nebraska," said Todd Nordeen, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Panhandle wildlife manager.
The road south on Tuesday started with a bang. Five simultaneous explosions severed ropes holding a big net above about 60 unsuspecting bighorns chowing down on a rare winter treat — broken bales of alfalfa hay scattered on the frozen tundra.
The net dropped instantly from five poles that held it aloft like the roof of a circus tent. About 60 volunteers, wildlife biologists and others — hiding behind vehicles and a knoll — charged the dogpile of thrashing bighorns to quickly separate and subdue the surprised sheep.
The critters were blindfolded to help calm them and hobbled to keep them from kicking.
They were cradled in slings and dragged to makeshift examining tables — four hay bales covered with a plastic tarp — for field physicals. Veterinarians and others poked and probed them.
An hour after the net dropped, Kit Hams, Game and Parks' big game manager in Lincoln, attached a nylon collar with a tracking device to a bighorn sporting ear tag No. 51.
Russell Mort of Nebraska City, a Game and Parks conservation officer, and Chad Taylor of Cambridge, a Game and Parks wildlife biologist, lugged No. 51 toward four livestock trailers.
The 160-pound female was the first sheep loaded into a trailer for the 1,300-mile road trip to Nebraska. The caravan was scheduled to arrive Thursday, about 48 hours after the sheep were captured.
The reluctant immigrants are 36 ewes and five rams. They are Canadian cousins to the Rocky Mountain bighorns already in Nebraska and will create a third herd in the Pine Ridge. There are two other herds in the Wildcat Hills.
The new sheep will bolster a population of more than 300 bighorns rounded up in South Dakota, Colorado and Montana and relocated to Nebraska over the past three decades.
The Canadian capture site — a reclaimed open-pit coal mine below a backdrop of 8,000-foot alpine peaks — resembled a rodeo on the rooftop of the world.
"Run, get on a sheep and keep it down," Nordeen told his crew of 16 Game and Parks employees and two Nebraska-based U.S. Department of Agriculture veterinarians.
When the capture net dropped, the wranglers sprinted to the struggling sheep, put a knee on a bighorn's neck to keep it down and reached through the net to start controlling a heaving mass of hooves and horns.
"Don't lead with your face," said Kirby Smith, a retired Alberta wildlife biologist, who was in charge of the net drop. "Once you get that sheep down, it's your sheep. Don't leave your sheep."
Voices called out for help. Others barked instructions.
"Hobble! We need a hobble!"
"Blindfold her first!"
"Grab a horn! Grab a horn!"
Sheep captured on the edge of the net were quickly subdued, while a mass in the center twisted and struggled.
"Chad, we need help on this dogpile," hollered Game and Parks wildlife biologist Richard Nelson of North Platte to Cambridge colleague Taylor.
Nordeen walked amid the tangled mass and checked each tied bighorn. He pulled down lips to expose teeth and determine age. He tagged keepers with swipe of a blue marker on the animal's horns.
Lambs, big rams and sheep with Canadian ear tags were kicked loose.
Within 10 minutes of the net falling, about two dozen sheep were blindfolded, hobbled, calmed and ready for processing.
But several sheep started showing distress. They panted heavily. Body temperatures climbed to dangerous levels. Over the next two hours, helpers tried to cool them. They rubbed snow under the bighorns' limbs and against their bellies.
Still, there were two casualties. A pair of ewes overheated and died.
The losses frustrated Nordeen, who has worked for two years on the transfer project. "It's unfortunate," Nordeen said. "But we didn't have bighorns in Nebraska for a time, and when you have to reintroduce them this way, it can be rough."
Dr. David Holroyd, an area veterinarian helping at the site, agreed, saying, "We need to keep the big picture in mind."
"This is a wonderful cooperative program between Nebraska and Alberta," Holroyd said. "These sheep are a renewable resource, and to share it is a great thing."
Nordeen and other Game and Parks officials started talking with their Alberta counterparts about relocating surplus bighorns in 2010. It took a year to secure permits; the final papers arrived 10 days ago.
This shipment was the first of wild sheep since the U.S. government imposed an import ban on certain animals to prevent the spread of disease, Nordeen said.
Funding for the estimated $70,000 to $80,000 cost of relocation, excluding Game and Parks staff time, comes from Nebraska's hunter-financed game and bighorn funds.
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