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February 17, 2015

Written by: Kristen A. Schmitt

Two years ago, South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks (SDGFP) began researching a solution to bring bighorn sheep herds back to a healthy number after a 2004 pneumonia outbreak decimated herds. Careful planning, 60 volunteers, and a partnership with Alberta, Canada gave South Dakota officials a chance at restoring bighorn sheep to its landscape last Tuesday.

"Based on our current action plan for bighorn sheep, we would like to be somewhere around 1,000 bighorn sheep in South Dakota," Regional Wildlife Manager John Kanta told KOTA News. The current population currently stands at 350. 

In a perfectly executed plan, 20 miles west of Hinton, in the Canadian province of Alberta, wildlife officers from both South Dakota and Canada along with 60 volunteers set up a large drop net and baited it with hay. According to the Rapid City Journal, 26 bighorn sheep wandered in, setting the stage for the next step: transferring the bighorn sheep into two horse trailers that were hauled by pickups 1,300 miles away to South Dakota and delivered to their new home last Thursday.

According to Kanta, the area where the bighorns were released was ideal: northeast of Deadwood off the remote and winding Two Bit Road. “If you wanted prime habitat for bighorn sheep, you’d find a rocky area with lots of slopes, cut down the trees and set it all on fire,” says Kanta. “The Grizzly Gulch Fire of 2002 did all of that for us, so this is the perfect place to let these animals run free.”

Prior to their release, GPS and VHF collars were placed on one two-year-old ram, 23 ewes and two lambs by South Dakota State University students in order to track the animals and study them long-term, documenting patterns, survivability, and the adjustment to the habitat.

“This is a non-migratory herd, and it’s our hope they stay here, have lambs and establish a new herd,” says graduate student Ty Werdel. “But this is wildlife, and they’re not confined to a pen. Anything can happen.”

Should this bighorn sheep transfer prove successful, SDGFP may move forward with transferring other herds to key regions across the state. “Bighorn sheep are natives to South Dakota, and this herd near Deadwood will help re-establish bighorns in the Black Hills,” says Kanta. “We’re looking at new herds for South Dakota.”

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