The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released California bighorn sheep at two new locations this month, Cottonwood Canyon State Park and near the John Day Fossil Beds.
Cottonwood Canyon is a new state park in the John Day River Canyon scheduled to open in 2013. While there are a few bighorn sheep in the park’s southern edge, this month’s operation was the first time sheep have been released at the park.
"We're excited to welcome the return of bighorn sheep to the northern reach of Cottonwood Canyon State Park," says State Park district manager Chris Parkins. "When the park opens in 2013, our new visitors will be swept away by seeing native wildlife in this rugged canyonland."
The other release occurred on BLM land, in the Branson Creek portion of the upper John Day River, near the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
As the herds get established in these two locations over the next few years, visitors will find viewing and eventually, hunting opportunities for the sheep.
The bighorn sheep released were first captured from areas where they are more plentiful -- 20 from around the Lower Deschutes River and 40 from around the John Day River. Twenty each were released at the two Oregon locations.
The final 20 sheep went to the Seminoe Mountains in Wyoming to supplement a release made last year. Wyoming Game and Fish paid for the cost of the capture and transport of these sheep.
Bighorn sheep are native to both areas where they were released in Oregon. The relocations are part of ongoing efforts to restore this animal to its native range.
During the capture operations, a helicopter was used to herd the animals before they were captured with a net fired from a specially-designed gun. Once captured, the sheep were hoisted in the air by the helicopter and taken to a location where ODFW biologists and veterinarians, plus volunteers from the Oregon Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wildlife Sheep processed the animals. Each bighorn sheep was disease-tested and many were fitted with a transmitter so their movements can be tracked.
Bighorn sheep are one of the rarest game mammals in Oregon today. They were extirpated from the state by the 1940s due to unregulated hunting and their susceptibility to domestic livestock diseases. Less than 100 bighorn sheep tags are offered to hunters each year on a “once-in-a-lifetime” hunt basis. ODFW also auctions and raffles off a bighorn sheep tag each year at events sponsored by sportsmen conservation groups; proceeds from the sales benefit the management of bighorn sheep. Sportsmen conservation organizations like FNAWS also contribute money to fund bighorn sheep recovery across North America.
The first successful bighorn sheep relocation in Oregon occurred in 1954, when 20 California bighorns were located from British Columbia to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County. Since then, the population of bighorn sheep has grown to an estimated 3,500-3,700.
A small population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep live in the Wallowa Mountains; the rest of the animals in the state are California bighorn sheep. ODFW generally relocates 20-80 bighorn sheep annually with the ultimate goal of creating healthy bighorn sheep populations in all available, suitable habitats within Oregon.
See ODFW’s Bighorn Sheep Management Plan for more information on the species in Oregon: