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NORTH PLATTE, Neb. — Nebraska's newest bighorn sheep herd is adapting well to life outside Canada, despite a summer of deep drought, historic heat, severe deer disease and wildfire.
“If I had known the conditions they'd face this year, I think I would have waited a year before bringing them down,'' said Todd Nordeen of Alliance, the State Game and Parks Commission's district wildlife manager in northwest Nebraska.
“Yet, they're doing well,” he told Game and Parks commissioners meeting Friday at North Platte Community College.
Nordeen and other Game and Parks volunteers released 41 bighorns in the Sowbelly Canyon area northeast of Harrison in February. The animals were captured in Alberta's Rocky Mountains and transplanted to Nebraska to diversify the state's four other herds.
The new herd consisted of five rams and 36 ewes. Last spring, 25 lambs were born to the surviving 33 ewes.
“These sheep are huge,” he said.
The spring lambs now weigh more than 100 pounds. The average adult bighorn transplanted from Canada weighs 166 pounds, Nordeen said.
He estimated the current population at 60 sheep. Most have stayed close to the rugged canyons and hills where they were released.
The late-summer fires in northwest Nebraska didn't directly affect the Sowbelly Canyon herd, but one of the blazes burned through the Barrel Butte herd's home range between Crawford and Chadron.
None of the estimated 65 sheep in the Barrel Butte herd is thought to have perished in the fire that destroyed the Bighorn Wildlife Management Area, Nordeen said.
“Their habitat changed, but the good thing about the fire is that it will produce better bighorn sheep habitat for the future,'' he said.
Despite setbacks by disease and poor lamb survival in some groups, Nebraska has a record 345 bighorns in five western Nebraska herds.
Lamb survival rates varied wildly this spring.
Three of 12 lambs survived at Fort Robinson, six of nine at Cedar Canyon, three of 31 at Barrel Butte, 35 of 42 at Hubbard's Gap and 22 of 25 at Sowbelly Canyon.
The herds are young. The Fort Robinson and Cedar Canyon herds each has only two rams at least 8½ years old. None of the three other herds has rams that age, Nordeen said.
The lack of at least seven older rams in the Fort Robinson herd led commissioners Friday to cancel the 2013 bighorn hunting season because there wouldn't be enough mature animals to guarantee a successful hunt. One or two permits would have been sold at auction or lottery. This fall's season was previously canceled.
Bighorns are native to Nebraska. There were none in the state as recently as 1980. The sheep vanished in the early 1900s because of habitat loss, disease and unregulated hunting.
The commission reintroduced bighorns at Fort Robinson State Park in 1981.
Herds were reintroduced at other locations in 2001, 2005, 2007 and this year.
“They're one of the most popular species with the public,'' Nordeen said.
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