Sheep moved to help populations stay healthy

A captured ewe gets a little bit of extra oxygen. (DON MARTIN/For the Miner)

A captured ewe gets a little bit of extra oxygen. (DON MARTIN/For the Miner)

One way that the Arizona Game and Fish Department ensures that various big game animals maintain a stable population is through a capture and transplant program.

One of the most valuable big game animals in Arizona is the desert bighorn sheep.

These majestic animals live in some of the roughest and most forlorn country in Arizona and it is not very often that a herd will be doing so well that some animals can be transplanted to other areas.

For the past few years, bighorn sheep in Game Management Unit 15D in the Black Mountains have done so well that the department has been transplanting sheep from this unit to other areas in Arizona.

This year, the survey in Unit 15D once again showed that the population - which is located south of Highway 68 on the north and I-40 to the south - is at near-record levels, so yet another sheep transplant was planned for early November.

This project was scheduled for up to three days, but due to the efficiency of the personnel who do these captures and transplants, the process was completed in just two.

The Arizona Game and Fish Department in Region III was in charge of the transplant of desert bighorn sheep in Unit 15D and it appears to have been a complete success. According to Region 3 Game Specialist Erin Butler, the capture of 40 sheep went off without any major problems or incidents.

I had the opportunity once again to cover this project and even assist a little in moving the sheep from where they are doctored to the transport cages on a flatbed trailer that was built and on loan to Game and Fish by the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.

There were about 20 people present for the capture operation, which is done by the use of helicopters. The use of helicopters in a project of this type is very expensive.

Butler estimated that the cost of the two-day project was about $15,000 and was paid for through a Habitat Partnership Committee and utilized special tag funds.

Game and Fish had a number of personnel, including department veterinarians, on hand. They checked the sheep for diseases by taking swabs of their throats and blood samples from each of them.

Each animal received two injections to ensure they would remain healthy. Ear tags were attached to each animal.

Some personnel who were on site are civilian volunteers who donate their time and effort to help out on these captures, year after year.

In the chopper are the pilot, co-pilot, a gunner and what is called a mugger, which is usually one of the wildlife managers from Region 3 who jump out of the chopper after a net gun is fired and a sheep is entangled in the net.

The net gun is fired from a device that utilizes a blank .308 round that shoots out a fairly large net. The mugger blindfolds, hobbles and puts a restraining blanket over the sheep.

That is a tough job. And as one wildlife manager found out, coming face to face with a ewe in a cave can result in some head butting in which the officer suffered some minor injuries to his face.

The plan is designed to remove animals that are not essential to the herd. This means mostly ewes and a few lambs, along with a number of young rams, are targeted. Old mature rams are not captured and relocated.

This capture included 40 animals. There were 30 ewes and 10 rams, and 10 of them were selected to receive very expensive and high-tech radio collars. These collars send a signal to orbiting satellites and provide the GPS location of the animal. The data is stored and sent to the biologists on the ground, who can then monitor the sheep's movements. If the sheep dies, the collar is designed to send out a mortality signal, which again gives the animal's exact location.

It was amazing to watch the personnel process the sheep once they were unloaded from the helicopters.

The animals are treated very humanely and as gently as possible. But they are wild animals and they were obviously frightened by all the noise, prodding and probing that they went through during the 20 minutes they were handled.

After they are doctored up and have received their ear tags and/or radio collars, the sheep were taken to a nearby trailer where they were loaded into transport cages for the ride to their new homes.

This is a dangerous part of the process, as I was to find out.

I was following a group of people who were taking a ewe to the trailer to be loaded. As they tried to put the ewe into the trailer, another ewe, which was much larger, slipped her head under the partially opened door, flipped it up, and literally jumped out of the cage and into the arms of volunteer Chad Villimor, who lives in Topock and attends almost all of these projects.

Villimor hit the ground flat on his back, and tried desperately to hang on to the ewe. But she fought and eventually escaped from his grasp and off into the desert she ran before any of the others could catch her.

Villimor didn't sustain any injuries, but the ewe's legs were flailing, and those hooves are sharp.

It is just one of the things that can occur on a sheep capture.

These sheep were destined to be transported into Knab Creek Canyon, which is located between Units 13A and 12A West.

They will supplement an existing population there and will ensure that there is genetic diversity among the sheep population for years to come.