Bighorn Sheep Research Invaluable for Species’ Survival

Throwback to a Wild Winter Survey

It’s late February in Western Montana. The mercury hovers around 15 degrees and the snow blows sideways. We know our chances of locating and capturing bighorn sheep will be slim today. The sheer cliff mountainsides are hardly visible through the gusts of snow – not ideal flying conditions for a helicopter to be netting and capturing sheep. Accompanied by a dozen Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) researchers and biologists, we grow weary as the morning grows late, kicking the tires of our respective pickups, waiting for the storm to break.

This past winter, the National Wildlife Federation was invited to help FWP with a capture survey of bighorn sheep west of Missoula, MT in the Petty Creek area. Although the herd is currently healthy, researchers are working to determine through throat swabs, blood samples and GPS collars, how disease, specifically pneumonia contracted from domestic sheep, is effecting the bighorn populations in Montana.

Montana’s bighorns have suffered massive disease related die-offs over the past twenty years, crippling the population and raising many questions about how to conserve the species into the future.

Capturing the Sheep

By 11 AM that February day, the storm had started to finally let up. We immediately heard the distant whir of a helicopter and raced down the road to meet the capture crew to take advantage of the visibility.

A helicopter was used to lift the sheep. Photo by Kit Fischer

FWP had hired a professional crew to run the capture, including a “gunner” and a “mugger”. We quickly learned that the gunner shoots the net gun out of the hovering helicopter, while the mugger on the ground hobbles the sheep and puts a blindfold on them to calm the animal while they are being transported and examined.

Weighing a sheep. Photo by Kit Fischer

Over a 3 hour period a half dozen sheep were air lifted in, collared, tested and released. Our fingers ached from the cold as we fumbled to secure the final washers and nuts on the collar. The collars will provide location data over a two year period, and an additional transceiver will allow the biologists to track their movements for an additional three years. This type of research is invaluable to at-risk species such as bighorn sheep.

The National Wildlife Federation is committed to protecting bighorn sheep in the West. Through NWF’s Adopt A Wildlife Acre Program, we’ve secured over a million acres in the Northern Rockies where bighorn sheep, grizzly bears, wolves and bison are free of conflict from domestic livestock. In the case of bighorn sheep, NWF strongly believes creating spatial separation between domestic and wild sheep on public lands is crucial to the species survival.

Check out NWF’s recent report, “Bighorns, Big Risks” for more information on the plight of bighorn sheep in the West.

Take ActionAdopt a Wildlife Acre today to support bighorn sheep and other wildlife!