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A bighorn sheep herd gets its start near Deadwood

By Tom Griffith Journal staff Rapid City Journal Feb 13, 2015

DEADWOOD | As Thursday morning breaks on a wind-swept ridge four miles from the nearest blacktop, two dozen locals gather to welcome to the Northern Black Hills their newest neighbors.

Bleary-eyed wildlife officers, fresh off a 36-hour, 1,300-mile trek from the Canadian wilderness, confer in hushed tones with a government veterinarian who ponders paperwork illuminated by the lonesome beam of a flashlight. Nearby, the smells of alfalfa and manure emerge from two horse trailers, mingling with the scent of dried prairie grasses and a long-ago wildfire.

The effort to establish a new herd of bighorn sheep in the highlands outside Deadwood is about to climax.

The tale wasn't always as dramatic as the Thursday morning scene. For two years, South Dakota Game, Fish & Wildlife personnel have been researching and planning how to turn a good idea into a successful project.

Three key actions were scheduled for this week.

The first began on Tuesday, 20 miles west of Hinton, in the Canadian province of Alberta. Wildlife officers from South Dakota and Canada, aided by 60 volunteers, set up a large drop net and baited it with hay, said John Kanta, GF&P regional wildlife manager.

Twenty-six bighorns wandered in.

Next came the caravan. The two horse trailers, hauled by pickups, made the 1,300-mile one-way trip back to South Dakota. The bighorns survived in fine form, Kanta said.

Then came Thursday morning. Kanta was a mixture of relief, joy and fatigue. 

“We’ve been working on this for the better part of two years and it’s involved a tremendous amount of paperwork and permits to bring these animals from Canada, across the border and to the Black Hills,” he said. “I’m operating on about two hours of sleep in the last two days, but I’m tremendously happy, and I can’t wait for these incredible animals to walk out of the trailers and run across the mountains.”

Kanta said the release area, northeast of Deadwood off remote and winding Two Bit Road, provided the ideal environment for the stout and sure-footed bighorns.

“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,” he said. “The Grizzly Gulch Fire of 2002 did all of that for us, so this is the perfect place to let these animals run free.”

Paul Schipke, a retired mining engineer onto whose property GF&P was to transplant the bighorns, said he was happy to welcome new residents to his backcountry neighborhood.

“To have another species of animal here will be fabulous,” Schipke said. “We have mountain lion, coyote, mule and whitetail deer, elk, wild turkeys and a couple kinds of grouse. Now we’ll have bighorns, and that will be so cool.”

South Dakota State University graduate student Ty Werdel, a 28-year-old who grew up in Chadron, Neb., accompanied GF&P officers to Canada for the capture. While Werdel said he reveled in the majesty of the Canadian Rockies just east of Jasper National Park, the country’s largest preserve, he said his mind kept returning to the two years of work he had before him.

“I will be following these bighorns around for the next two years, monitoring them on a daily basis,” said Werdel, who moved to Deadwood a month ago in preparation for the release and subsequent work that will lead to his master’s degree in wildlife management.

Aided by GPS and VHF collars placed Tuesday on one 2-year-old ram, 23 ewes and two lambs, Werdel will track the animals as they roam the Northern Hills and observe them in their new home, all in a long-term effort to understand their patterns, survivability, and 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,” he said. “But this is wildlife, and they’re not confined to a pen. Anything can happen.”

In 700 days, the tracking collars will automatically fall off. It will be Werdel’s job to find each of the collars, then download and analyze data from them.

The effort is part of the GF&P’s 2013 action plan to bolster bighorn sheep herds in South Dakota. According to the GF&P, there are about 300 bighorns in the state distributed among four herds in or near Rapid City, Elk Mountain, Custer State Park and Badlands National Park.

Some of those herds have been ravaged by a disease known as epizootic pneumonia, which has reduced herds throughout the West, according to the GF&P report. Wildlife biologists believe bacterial respiratory pathogens are responsible for the pneumonia, and evidence suggests that in at least some instances, this disease results from the bighorns' contact with domestic sheep or goats.

In addition to creating the new bighorn herd near Deadwood, GF&P is studying the potential transplant of as many as 300 bighorns onto about 34,000 acres in the Angostura area of the Southern Hills, with sub-herds at Horse Trap Mountain and Flagpole Mountain, according to the action plan.

“Bighorn sheep are natives to South Dakota, and this herd near Deadwood will help re-establish bighorns in the Black Hills,” Kanta said. “We’re looking at new herds for South Dakota.”

As the time for Thursday morning’s release nears, anticipation grows from the gathered crowd, speaking in whispers lest they startle the animals still sleeping off the long road trip.

At 7:03 a.m., wildlife officers open the trailers' doors and, with a little prodding, 26 bighorn sheep, eyes wide open and ears standing tall, gallop from their enclosures, first one, then a pair, then a crowd so boisterous, they stumble over each other. They survey a mountainous scene littered with lingering snow, pine-clad cliffs, and draws filled with leafless aspen.

The animals huddle briefly, give a passing backward glance at their well-meaning captors, descend a draw, effortlessly ascend the other side, then top a ridge before disappearing from sight.

In their wake stand their new neighbors, smiling, wondering when these magnificent animals may once again come to call.

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