- Associated Press - Friday, February 17, 2017

CHADRON, Neb. (AP) - Pregnant bighorn sheep have been fitted with special transmitters in an effort to improve the health of wild herds in northwest Nebraska, where lambs have been dying.

A helicopter was used this week to help Nebraska Game and Parks Commission staffers capture 20 ewes. Special monitors were placed in the animals’ reproductive tracts that will alert commission staffers when the lambs are born.

The staffers will race to the area to find and fit each lamb with a tracking collar to help biologists learn what’s causing so many of the lambs to die in the Pine Ridge area of Dawes and Sioux counties. Experts believe no lambs survived last year and that most died within a couple months of birth, the commission said Thursday.

Eleven other bighorns were captured, the commission said, and they and the pregnant ewes were equipped with location telemetry collars and ear tags. Bacteria samples also were taken.

The Pine Ridge herds have disease issues, and biologists hope the samples taken from the sheep will show which pathogens are at work, said Todd Nordeen, the commission’s big game research and disease program manager.

A subspecies of bighorn sheep was native to the butte country of the Nebraska Panhandle but became extinct by 1925, eliminated by disease, unregulated hunting and habitat loss.

Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep from Custer State Park in South Dakota were reintroduced to Nebraska in an enclosure at Fort Robinson State Park in 1981. They were released to the wild in 1988 and 1993. Bighorns from Colorado, Montana and Canada also have been released in the Pine Ridge and the Wildcat Hills south of Gering.

Nebraska has a population of about 320 bighorns, including 140 in the Pine Ridge, the commission said.

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