KALISPELL - It's not easy to catch a bighorn sheep -- especially in subzero temperatures, but that's what biologists with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks recently did.
They caught 20 of the animals south of Malta and moved them more than 500 miles to help improve a herd near Plains. It's not every day you see a couple of bighorn sheep dangling from a helicopter but that's exactly what you're seeing.
"Occasionally to help herds that are in decline we will transplant animals from different areas, bighorn sheep especially," said Region One Education Officer Dillon Tabish.
Tabish says the bighorn sheep herd near Plains has declined in the last decade from around 100 sheep to under 25.
"We've had some disease-related issues that have really hurt some of the herds there. Unfortunately next to the highway there in Thompson Falls, the bighorn sheep like to hang out by the road. We've seen, you know, bighorn sheep get on and cause collisions with vehicles which is really unfortunate."
Tabish says in an effort to re-establish the population bighorn sheep were caught south of Malta from a healthy and abundant herd. "Our crews got together with Quicksilver Air a helicopter crew and they went and they caught 20 bighorn sheep - 18 ewes and two yearling rams."
Tabish says the ewes which are the females provide the most important opportunity for population health. "If the ewes can stay healthy, hopefully, that will build a really strong foundation for that population to grow."
Tabish says getting to this point was a challenge, as you can imagine catching a bighorn sheep isn't exactly easy especially in the middle of February with negative 45-degree temperatures, but he says the project was a success and biologists were also able to gather valuable data about the health of the transplants.
"They have to capture them with a helicopter, where they go in and they net them and they blindfold them which calms them down and really keeps them from getting a little rambunctious and then they transport them to an area where biologists take some health samples to make sure they're okay and safe. The thing that was different this year is that it was a - 45-degree wind chill when this was occurring."
Tabish says the agency is optimistic the herd will continue to grow incrementally over the next decade.
"The goal is to have it around 100-125 sheep which would allow us to offer more hunting opportunities and it would allow us to confidently say that that population is healthy and safe."
Tabish says the agency will continue to keep a close eye on the herd to make sure that disease doesn't spread among it and that hopefully they don't get on roads and cause collisions. Bighorn sheep have a lifespan of eight-to-10 years.