KALISPELL — A team of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks employees braved subzero temperatures and extreme winter weather to capture bighorn sheep south of Malta and transport the animals more than 500 miles to help improve a herd near Plains.
With wind chill temperatures hovering around negative 45 degrees in mid-February, FWP staff worked with a helicopter crew from Quicksilver Air Inc. to capture 20 bighorn sheep — 18 ewes and two yearling rams — in Hunting District 622 south of Malta.
HD 622 is home to a healthy and abundant bighorn sheep herd. As a core part of FWP’s mission to monitor and maintain healthy wildlife populations, biologists occasionally transplant bighorn sheep from areas where there are healthy herds, such as HD 622 and Wild Horse Island State Park, which recently produced the largest ram on record. Animals are safely captured and studied for general health conditions before being transported to areas where populations have declined.
The bighorn sheep population in Hunting District 122 southeast of Plains has shrunk dramatically in recent years from roughly 100 sheep to barely 20-25 animals.
“That population saw a decline in numbers about three years ago and we did some work to see if it was a disease-related issue," said Bruce Sterling, a FWP Region 1 wildlife biologist who participated in the recent capture. "The sheep that we did test came back clean, so we saw a great opportunity to go in and augment the population and try to build it back up to the objective of about 100-125 sheep.”
During the recent capture, FWP staff collected general health of the bighorns through nasal and tonsil swabs, blood collection, fecal samples, and weighing the individual animals. An ear punch was also taken from each sheep for genetic work and ear tags were attached to identify individual sheep.
Before being transported the long distance, the animals were given an antibiotic, dewormer and vitamin injections.
FWP staff from Region 6 that helped on the ground included Scott Thompson, Drew Henry, Heather Harris, Kenny Plourde, Ben Morin, Andy Matakis, Todd Tryan, John Huberty and Brett Dorak. FWP veterinarian staff on hand included Jennifer Ramsey and Keri Carson.
Sterling, based in Thompson Falls, participated from Region 1 and relocated the sheep to HD 122.