• Click here for video of the bighorn capture.
• See a photo showcase of the capture at the sheep's journey to Nebraska.
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HARRISON, Neb. — Two livestock trailer doors opened.
An ornery wildlife biologist had marked “ewe haul” in the dust and muck of one door.
Five seconds passed. Ten.
A few ticks later, the first of 40 bighorn sheep from western Canada leaped tentatively into chapter five of a growing initiative to reintroduce the native species to Nebraska.
“Welcome to a new world,” said Todd Nordeen, a Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife biologist in Alliance. He led a team of 19 Nebraskans on a seven-day expedition to Alberta to capture the Rocky Mountain bighorns and bring them to Nebraska.
The bighorns' new home is the Sowbelly Ranch northeast of Harrison.
Rancher Jim Voeller opened his land to the sheep.
After nearly 48 hours in trailers, the bighorns appeared stiff-legged for a few moments before dashing into the hills and canyons around Pants Butte in northwest Nebraska's Pine Ridge.
Nordeen said seeing the trailer doors open was probably a shock for the sheep. The bighorns were sealed in the vehicles after their capture Tuesday at a reclaimed Teck Coal open-pit mine near Hinton, Alberta.
“They're a little bit lost and just wanting to know what's out there,” Nordeen said. “They see people and they hesitate. But I think they had had enough of the trailers. It was time to move on.”
Most of the 40 bighorns — 35 ewes and five rams — appeared to head for steep, rough terrain for safety. A ram and one ewe circled around and disappeared somewhere else on the roughly 2,000-acre ranch.
A short time later and a short distance away, Greg Schenbeck, a Game and Parks wildlife biologist, saw a ram approach a four-wire barbed fence. The animal paused, appeared to study the obstacle, and then rammed through it. The ram then crossed the road and went through the fence on the other side too.
A ewe with the ram didn't follow.
Later, a ewe that may or may not have been the same sheep trotted south on Pants Butte Road, approaching fences and moving on.
Fences are something new to the free-range Alberta bighorns, Schenbeck said.
“They are going to have to learn to negotiate fences,” he said. “That will be an adjustment.”
Schenbeck is one of several Game and Parks biologists and technicians who closely monitor the Panhandle's relocated bighorn herds. There are two other herds in the Pine Ridge and two in the Wildcat Hills.
Although western Nebraska's rugged terrain is ideal bighorn habitat — tens of thousands of the sheep lived here before Europeans settled — Game and Parks will closely monitor the new bighorns' adjustment to their new home, Schenbeck said.
The obvious difference, other than fences: The sheep came from a place some 6,000 feet above sea level. High points on Sowbelly Ranch peak at about 4,800 feet.
A similarity: The same species of wheat grass and Canada wild rye provide natural forage in both locations.
A question: What impact will predators have on the sheep? Nebraska has no wolves or grizzly bears, but mountain lions and coyotes are common predators of bighorns in Canada and here.
Dean Studnicka, a wildlife biologist in Crawford, Neb., said the bighorns may have to get used to predators' different hunting strategies in Nebraska.
The sheep also will have to learn how to interact with cattle and horses.
Studnicka has seen horses chase bighorns away from water tanks.
The sheep released Thursday were equipped with transmitter collars to help biologists monitor how they adapt and survive.
Nordeen's crew left Alberta with 41 bighorns. One ewe died en route, apparently of capture myopathy, a stress-induced ailment in which high levels of lactic acid cause organs to shut down.
Nordeen said the ailment lingers and could claim a few more bighorns in the coming weeks.
The sheep were released in two sites about two miles apart on the ranch. Like Nebraska's four other herds, the Sowbelly bighorns will be free-ranging but are expected to establish the ranch canyons as their permanent address.
Voeller, 65, spends his summers raising horses and cattle at the Nebraska ranch. He winters at another ranch near St. George, Utah.
“Wild sheep are my favorite animal,” he said in a phone interview from Utah. “The bighorn sheep is a very majestic-looking animal. I really like to look at them.
“The sheep are a diminishing species. Their habitat is diminishing,” he said. “They were native to this area and I'd really like to see them propagate in this country.”
There is no general hunting season for bighorns in Nebraska. The state is trying to establish a stable, wild population of 600 bighorns.
The new arrivals boosted Nebraska's bighorn population to about 350. Nebraska's hunter-financed game and bighorn funds covered the relocation costs of $70,000 to $80,000.
Micah Ellstrom, a Game and Parks conservation technician who will help monitor the bighorns, was among about 30 people who turned out to witness their arrival.
“Once they hit ground,” he said, “they hit the ground running.”
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