SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon wildlife officials captured and relocated California bighorn sheep at several locations this week in an effort to restore the animal to its native range.
Twenty bighorns were released Friday on Bureau of Land Management land in the Klamath River Canyon, where they have not been seen since the 1940s. Meanwhile, 15 sheep captured in the Deschutes River Canyon will supplement existing herds at Alvord Peaks in Harney County, and 20 sheep captured in the John Day River Canyon went to an existing herd in Grant County.
In a statement, Don Whittaker of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife said research shows it’s important to mix up the genetics of a herd. “Higher genetic diversity leads to better population performance, and we hope to see population increases, too,” he said.
Most of the sheep sent to the Klamath River Canyon were from the Branson Creek area of Grant County, where sheep were reintroduced in 2010. Wildlife managers removed those bighorns because there is a risk of disease transmission between wild and domestic sheep in that area, said Michelle Dennehy, a state Fish and Wildlife spokeswoman.
A helicopter was used to locate sheep before they were captured using a net fired from a specially designed gun. Once captured, the sheep were blindfolded and restrained to calm them, hoisted in the air by the helicopter and taken to a location where biologists and veterinarians tested the animals for disease and fitted many of them with transmitters.
Next week, biologists will collar Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Lower Imnaha River area to help wildlife managers monitor herds in northeast Oregon.
California bighorns were once the most abundant native wild sheep in Oregon and were found throughout the mountainous terrain of southeast Oregon.
They died off in Oregon in the 1940s because of domestic livestock diseases and unregulated hunting. The first successful bighorn sheep relocation in Oregon happened 60 years ago, when 20 California bighorns were relocated from British Columbia to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County.
Since then, the population of bighorn sheep has grown to about 3,600. All but about 800 of known Oregon wild sheep are California bighorns, with the remaining ones Rocky Mountain bighorns.