CRAWFORD, Neb. — Nebraska's bighorn sheep are high-elevation critters.
They hang out on the rocky slopes and pinnacles of the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills of western Nebraska.
Nine bighorns experienced the difference between elevation and altitude Monday when they were captured, blindfolded, bagged and flown over the buttes they call home at Fort Robinson State Park, swinging in a sling beneath a helicopter.
Five wild elk captured a day earlier in the wilderness area at Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge near Valentine, Neb., didn't get the free copter ride but, like the bighorns, went back to their herds wearing a new leather collar.
This was no ordinary bling. The collars were outfitted with high-tech gadgetry to help wildlife biologists learn more about the elk and bighorns' demographics, behavior, herd health and habitat.
The goal is to help re-establish stable populations of the elk and bighorns.
“Our primary objective is to see what we've got with these herds to help us manage them better,” said Todd Nordeen of Alliance, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission wildlife manager in the region.
With the aid of a helicopter-flying wildlife capture company, each of the elk and three captured bighorn rams is now wearing GPS tracking collars that send signals to satellites monitored on computers in wildlife offices across western Nebraska. Bighorn ewes got very- high-frequency devices tracked by biologists in the field.
The two-day project cost about $14,000, Nordeen said, with costs shared between Game and Parks, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and several big game hunting and conservation organizations.
Nordeen said biologists have been giving special attention to the Fort Robinson bighorn herd since disease hit it hard several years ago. About half those bighorns now wear tracking devices.
Bighorn sheep and elk are a historic part of Nebraska's natural landscape.
Prior to European settlement, bighorns ranged from Western mountains to Plains Badlands, including the bluffs and ridges of western Nebraska. Elk roamed from the Missouri River to the Pine Ridge.
Wild, free-ranging elk were gone by 1880. Bighorns vanished about 1900. Both big-game species started coming back about three decades ago. Elk quietly slipped into the state from Wyoming, South Dakota and Colorado and established successful colonies. The bighorns' re-entry hasn't been as smooth, particularly at Fort Robinson, their first Nebraska homestead.
The Fort Robinson bighorn herd was reintroduced in 1981, when two mature rams and four mature ewes were placed in a 500-acre captive pasture for public viewing. Seven years later, 21 sheep were released from the enclosure. The herd slowly increased to about 130 by 2004. Disease reduced numbers to the current estimate of 30 to 35, Nordeen said.
Two other Pine Ridge bighorn herds are larger, including 61 in a herd started a year ago with 40 Canadian transplants. Nordeen said biologists are considering moving some bighorns from larger herds in the Wildcat Hills of the central Panhandle into the Pine Ridge herds.
His only disappointment with Monday's capture was that no middle-age rams were found and collared. Middle-age and older rams wander more, and biologists hoped to get information about where they go. They captured six adult ewes and three yearling rams.
“Now we have to hope that the young rams lead us to the older guys,” he said.
The Fort Robinson capture started shortly after dawn Monday, when a Native Range Capture Services helicopter piloted by New Zealander Mark Shelton disappeared over the Red Cloud Buttes in search of sheep on the north side of the state park. He carried two crew members who fired net guns.
Shelton's first delivery was three bighorns hanging below the helicopter like the tangled cords of a Venetian blind. He gently lowered the bighorns to the snowy field and lifted off again.
Game and Parks biologists and 10 student volunteers from the Chadron State College Wildlife Club carried the hobbled and bundled 130-pound bighorns to a makeshift field lab of straw bales covered with plastic tarpaulin.
The air temperature was about 15 degrees, ideal for working with sheep whose body temperatures soar to critical levels when under stress. Still, the crew poured ice water and ice on the sheep to help cool them.
While veterinarians drew blood samples, others gave shots of antibiotics, pulled hair for DNA, collected fecal samples, applied numbered ear tags and attached radio collars. In five to 15 minutes, the hobbles and yellow blindfolds were removed, and the sheep scrambled onto their feet and disappeared into the buttes.
Sunday's elk capture near Valentine was similar, but the helicopter crew alone handled the capture and processing of the 350- to 400-pound cows in the wilderness area's pine and burr oak canyons and slopes.
The elk were shot with a rifle dart that contained a three-drug cocktail to immobilize each animal. Shelton landed the helicopter and a crew member leaped out to collect hair samples, apply the collar and inject penicillin and a reversal drug to help the animal recover. All the elk were up and moving Monday.
Alan Whited, deputy project leader at Fort Niobrara, said the radio collars will provide invaluable help in determining how many elk are in the Valentine area. Biologists estimate that there are 100 to 150 elk within 50 miles of the refuge.
Four years ago, the Fish and Wildlife Service euthanized captive elk it kept in the wilderness area and replaced a high barrier fence around the 4,000-acre site with a wildlife-friendly fence to allow animals to come and go. The action allowed the agency to start over with a clean slate, without fears of releasing diseased elk into the wild. Biologists test for chronic-wasting disease but have never found a case in deer or elk on the refuge.
Some nearby landowners on Sunday refused to allow the capture operation to target elk on their property. The refusals limited the number of elk that received radio collars.
Still, Whited said, he was pleased to add radio collars to five elk. A sixth was captured and collared by happenstance about two weeks ago.
Whited said the agency hopes to open the refuge to elk hunting, but only after a certain population of wild elk consistently uses the site.
“We have to get to that population point first,” he said.
February 2012: Journey ends, story begins for bighorns
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