Hanging onto the rungs of a helicopter with a dart gun in pursuit of several Bighorn Sheep sounds more like a video game than a real job. But a few guys in a helicopter flying service from Alaska and Colorado actually do that for a living. And they did it just recently up the West Fork just a few miles beyond Painted Rocks Reservoir. Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Rebecca Mowry organized the event which included FWP personnel and volunteers.
One of those volunteers, Tom Powers with Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, said it was 31 degrees and extremely windy at his place on Thursday morning, but when they arrived at Painted Rocks dam it was 13 degrees. However, the wind had died down, the air was calm and the helicopter mission was a go. Former FWP biologist Craig Jourdonnais flew in a fixed wing plane to do spotting for the operation. Powers said that within 30 minutes they had brought two sheep back to the test site. His job was to monitor the animal’s temperature and see that they didn’t overheat. If the sheep’s temperature gets up to 104 degrees, the animal is cooled down with snow and water.
Ear tags are placed on the sheep for future identification. Fecal and blood samples are taken. Nasal and mouth swabs are taken for analysis and the animals are weighed. Some receive radio transmitters that Mowry will use to monitor their activities.The radio collars were paid for by the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation and the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association.
It was a pretty successful five-hour job as a dozen sheep were captured and tested, including two young rams, nine ewes and one lamb. Powers said that by early afternoon the remaining sheep had figured things out and were hiding out in the timber, so they decided to call it quits around 1:30 p.m.
“It was a pretty exciting day,” said Powers. He said there hasn’t been a real sheep capture like this in the Bitterroot since 2000, when 30 sheep were captured up the East Fork and transplanted to Utah.