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Colorado biologists boosting bighorn sheep herds

Successful transplant increases numbers in northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists take blood samples while transplanting bighorn sheep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO PARKS AND WILDLIFE.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A herd of bighorn sheep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains gained nine new animals recently, as Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists completed a second translocation of sheep captured in the southern part of the range.

The nine bighorn sheep join 13 others that were moved into the mountains of northeastern Saguache County in a similar operation in 2010.

Before 2010, the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains had not had bighorn sheep since the 198os. In the southern part of the range, bighorm sheep have been thriving, providing a good source for the transplant. Visit this Colorado Parks and Wildlife website to learn more about the state’s bighorn conservation efforts.

One of the nine bighorn sheep transplanted to help re-establish bighorn sheep populations in the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO PARKS AND WILDLIFE.

“This is traditional bighorn sheep habitat and it’s an exciting part of our work to get to help restore this population,” said Dan Prenzlow, southeast region wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “The rest is up to the sheep, but we think the habitat is very good to support them as this small population grows for generations to come.”

The agency used helicopters to capture and release the animals. The bighorn are netted by helicopter crews at the capture location and then flown off steep mountainsides to a nearby staging area. They’re then transported north in horse trailers to a second staging area near the release site. The helicopter picks them up again and transports them to the steep alpine terrain of their new home near Hunts Peak.

“It’s a tricky helicopter operation,” said Brian Dreher, senior terrestrial biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in southeast Colorado. “The operation can only be done if weather conditions are just right.”

Sheep are captured and released at elevations above 12,000 feet above sea level. Thin air at that elevation challenges even the most steady-handed helicopter pilots and Quicksilver Air is one of the few contractors that will undertake the work.

The project to bring bighorn back to the northern Sangre would not have been possible without assistance from the National Park Service at the Great Sand Dunes National Preserve and the Rio Grande and San Isabel National Forests.

“We’ve been able to work with the Preserve, east of the national park, to get bighorn from the alpine habitat, which means the sheep we’re transplanting are naturally suited to the habitat they’re being transplanted to,” explained Dreher. “We also had tremendous cooperation from the Forest Service to allow us to put the transplanted sheep into the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness area.”

All the sheep are examined by a veterinarian at the capture staging area. Biologists take blood and DNA samples and fit the sheep with radio telemetry tracking collars and ear tags. The collars will help biologists track the new arrivals and assess their habitat usage as the new herd becomes established. In addition to distribution across the habitat, airplane monitoring will be used for several years to help biologists keep track of survival and reproduction.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologists take measurements of bighorn sheep being transplanted to the northern Sangre de Cristo Mountains. PHOTO COURTESY COLORADO PARKS AND WILDLIFE.

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