By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor

BOZEMAN – The third wave of an effort to expand the bighorn sheep population in the Madison Mountain Range occurred Jan. 20 in the Madison Valley south of Ennis. Biologists and wardens from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worked with community volunteers, and Montana State University faculty and students to capture and relocate 23 bighorns to the Wolf Creek area, in the hope that the sheep will colonize there.

Approximately 50 individuals gathered near Quake Lake, a highly populated bighorn winter range, to assist in the capture. Volunteers physically restrained and blindfolded the sheep, which were caught beneath a large net, while wildlife officials collected samples to test for disease, and collared several individuals. The sheep were then transported to the release site, some 10 to 12 miles north.

Ryan Castle, a Bozeman-area resident, volunteered to help with the relocation effort. “The most important thing was making sure sheep were safe throughout the process,” he said, adding that handlers were careful not to roughly handle the sheep or let them get injured in the net.

“It’s always cool to be that close and handle a wild animal. It’s not every day you do that,” Castle said. “We’re helping to relocate bighorn sheep to better Montana’s bighorn sheep population. It feels like a big deal to be part of helping Montana’s bighorn sheep—rather than sitting back and hearing about it, you are actually helping.”

Currently, bighorn sheep populations are suffering throughout the western U.S. due to a variety of respiratory diseases. In Montana, wildlife officials are most concerned about epidemic or chronic respiratory diseases, which have been associated with large-scale pneumonia die-offs that affect all ages of sheep, and can also lead to low lamb recruitment following an outbreak, said Emily Almberg, disease ecologist for FWP. Almberg, one of the veterinarians assessing health panels for each sheep, said they expect results from the tests in about a month.

Using a drop net to capture the sheep is considered by researchers to be one of the better methods for capturing entire social groups. Relocating groups of sheep that are already familiar with each other might lessen the likelihood they will return to the capture site and their native range and herd.

Each year, some sheep return to the capture site, but so far, the newest group of sheep have stayed, said Julie Cunningham, Bozeman area wildlife biologist for FWP. There has been one mortality in the new group, which she suspects was due to predation.

“It feels great to open that trailer door,” Cunningham said, referring to the moment when the sheep are released from the transportation trailer into the new area. “Years and years of work lead up to that moment. But the work isn’t done yet. We have to evaluate the success of the project and report on the results. We are trying a new method to increase bighorn sheep populations in Montana. These within-mountain range transplants are new tools, and preliminary results are positive.”

Unlike deer, elk or pronghorn, bighorn sheep do not pioneer and travel into new territory, but prefer to remain in familiar areas. Recognizing this, the Madison relocation initiative is an attempt to move sheep from an area of high density to an area of low density.

Wolf Creek was once native bighorn habitat, however sheep disappeared from the area during the 1960s after several die-offs. On the west side of the Madison Range near Ennis, the overall sheep population is divided into two herds, one that winters along Quake Lake and is known as the Taylor-Hilgard herd, and another smaller band that winters in the upper reaches of Moose and Sun creeks.

The group of sheep wintering near Big Sky known as the Spanish Peaks herd is geographically separated from these other bighorn populations by areas of non-habitat.

This year’s relocation effort is the third in the Wolf Creek area and officials hope the relocation will help the overall Madison sheep population grow and make the species more resilient should disease breakout, as several semi-isolated bands of sheep are more likely to survive in the event of disease than one or two large groups.

In January 2015, 52 sheep were relocated to Wolf Creek and 22 more were moved the following winter. There was no transplant last year. The majority of these relocation efforts have been funded by auction-generated dollars for bighorn sheep hunting licenses, as well as the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration funds.