LINCOLN – The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on Feb. 19 relocated 26 bighorn sheep from the Wildcat Hills to supplement two herds in the Pine Ridge.
Game and Parks contracted a helicopter crew to capture the sheep at the Hubbard Gap region of the Wildcat Hills. Agency staff moved the sheep via livestock trailers to Fort Robinson State Park and Bighorn Wildlife Management Area, to the west and east of Crawford, respectively.
Those sheep were among the latest to be fitted with tracking collars and ear tags to help agency staff keep tabs on the animals’ location and better manage their populations. Fourteen others were captured, collared, tagged and released back to the Wildcat Hills. The project is scheduled to move to the Cedar Canyon area of the Wildcat Hills in hopes of processing 52 sheep.
Todd Nordeen, Game and Parks’ northwest district wildlife manager, said the species has thrived in some areas and has struggled in others.
“We’ve had our ups and downs with disease issues and so forth, which has set back some of these populations,” Nordeen said. “Fortunately, down in the Hubbard Gap region of the Wildcat Hills those sheep have done better than the ones at Fort Robinson.”
Bighorn sheep were native to the butte country of the Nebraska Panhandle, but disappeared from the landscape in the early 1900s because of disease, habitat loss and unregulated hunting.
Before Feb. 19, the two bighorn herds in the Wildcat Hills were estimated to consist of 210 animals, while the three herds in the Pine Ridge numbered 175. Before the new arrivals, the Fort Robinson herd had dwindled to an estimated 27 sheep. Reintroductions of bighorn sheep in Nebraska began in 1981.
In the coming days, the same helicopter crew is scheduled to capture 14 elk near Valentine and Bassett to equip them with tracking collars. The project is the latest chapter in an ongoing effort with the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge to monitor elk in that region. If the populations are deemed appropriate, more of the refuge may be opened to hunting.
In early February, the helicopter service piloted Game and Parks staff members as they surveyed areas of northwest Nebraska to determine the population of mule deer, where declines have been suspected. Nordeen said the project is the first to use a helicopter to count mule deer and is scheduled take place annually for at least five more years, resulting in valuable data to best manage the species.