JACKSON, Wyo. (AP) - The female bighorn sheep looked like two sacks of potatoes as the helicopter lowered them to the ground. Blindfolded and hobbled, they stayed motionless while a crew of wildlife biologists, game wardens and a veterinarian ran to them to begin testing.
Five sets of hands worked on the first ewe. Someone took her temperature: 101.7. A game warden held her down.
Hank Edwards, a wildlife disease specialist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, swabbed her tonsils, nasal passage and ears.
Another person fit her with two radio collars.
Within minutes, the group carried her to the bottom of a rocky hill and let her go.
Sheep No. 12 was one of six female bighorns captured, tested and collared Sunday near Jackson as part of a multistate effort to better understand what’s killing the animals.
Experts know pneumonia often brings death, but they want to know what combination of bacteria, parasites, habitat, weather or overcrowding makes them susceptible to the deadly bacteria.
“How come they can live with these pathogens most of the time and then all of a sudden tip over?” Edwards asked. “What is tipping point here?”
Bighorn sheep, a symbol of high country in the West, historically roamed most of Wyoming’s land, said Kevin Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation and former bighorn sheep program coordinator for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
A combination of unregulated hunting more than a century ago, habitat fragmentation and disease transmission from domestic sheep killed thousands of bighorns and restricted their ranges to only the most rugged and undeveloped terrain.
Even though unregulated hunting has stopped, bighorn sheep remain susceptible to disease, Hurley said.
“These are very robust, very rugged critters that live in such incredible places, but they’re extremely wimpy from a respiratory standpoint,” he said. “You glance at them sideways, they might topple over.”
Wildlife managers started working in the 1940s to keep herds healthy, removing extras from herds that grew too large for their habitat and placing them in areas where herds no longer flourished.
But despite their best efforts, even some of the heartiest populations suffered massive die-offs.