SNAPPED: Game & Fish capture, study sheep

JACKSON, Wyo. — A sample of local bighorn sheep got the ride of a lifetime last Saturday in the name of science.

Biologists from Wyoming Game & Fish and the University of Wyoming have studied the sheep in the Jackson herd every winter and spring for since 2014. Biologists track nutrition, disease, and lamb survival in the local herd, which summers high in the Gros Ventre mountains and makes its way down toward the National Elk Refuge and low elevations in the Gros Ventre drainage. Some will stay high above treeline if they can manage.

For biologists, it’s just another day at work, albeit a cold one. For the sheep, it’s probably a little disorienting. Members of a contracted wildlife capture crew find and capture the sheep from a helicopter with a net gun. The sheep are then carried, hobbled and blindfolded, to a designated landing spot at the base of Curtis Canyon or by Slide Lake in the Gros Ventre. At Curtis, a team of scientists is waiting to swab the sheep’s nasal canals and tonsils to test for pathogens and disease. Biologists also do an ultrasound to measure body fat and check for pregnancy. The sheep are weighed. Measurements are taken for girth, length, etc. Some receive their first collars or replacements with fresh batteries. Then it’s over. Some sheep are released on-site and “just run off into nearby cliffs,” said Mark Gocke, Public Information Specialist for Game and Fish. If they were captured far away from the landing site, they’re ferried back to where to they were originally captured.

The bi-annual capture allows Game & Fish to monitor how healthy the Jackson herd of sheep is. Dr. Kevin Montieth with the University of Wyoming conducts the ultrasounds, and said the sheep they tested on Sunday look really good so far. They’re all a healthy weight. Biologists will measure the same sheep in March to see how they fared the harsh winter.

It takes a village — or, more accurately, a team of dedicated volunteers — to pull this off. The captures generally start before dawn and last all day. On Sunday, six sheep were captured in the Sheep Mountain, or “Sleeping Indian” area and handled at the Curtis Canyon site. Another six sheep were captured in the upper Gros Ventre drainage and handled near Slide Lake. Last weekend, their goal was to capture and sample 16 sheep total, but four of the previously collared sheep were in the Gros Ventre Wilderness where the helicopter is not allowed to operate.

This story has been updated with additional information from Wyoming Game & Fish. 

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