MAUPIN — Jim Bittle's participation last week in one of Oregon's greatest wildlife success stories came strictly from behind.

The Central Point man parlayed his position on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission into a key role during the capture of 20 California bighorn sheep from the Deschutes River Canyon and their release in Oregon's John Day River Basin.

"I was a tail-gunner," Bittle says. "I had to take the temperature and collect fecal matter."

Monitoring a sheep's temperature with a rectal thermometer is vital to ensure it survives the capture, testing and helicopter flight to its new digs. And the fecal testing checks for potentially infectious and deadly diseases such as pneumonia that can wipe out sheep herds.

When the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife field biologist meted out duties for this well oiled operation Jan. 3, it was perhaps fitting that the commish got the crap job.

"Go ahead, laugh all you want, but you talk about the opportunity of a lifetime," Bittle says. "It was incredible."

Last week's relocation was the latest chapter in a decades-long collage of projects that make the reintroduction of bighorn sheep one of Oregon's greatest wildlife success stories.

Bighorn sheep once roamed vast areas of Oregon. Two subspecies of bighorn sheep roamed Eastern Oregon, with the Rocky Mountain subspecies in the northeast corner of the state and the California subspecies throughout southeast and south-central Oregon, as well as deep in the John Day and Deschutes drainages.

But settlement of the West brought over-hunting, habitat loss, domestic livestock and associated diseases that led to the disappearance of native sheep by the end of World War II.

Reintroduction began in 1954 when the first California bighorn sheep were brought in from British Columbia. The population since has grown to 3,500 to 3,700 among herds in southeast Oregon, with another 800 or so Rocky Mountain sheep since the first 40 animals were transplanted from Canada's Jasper National Park in 1971.

ODFW’s yearly capture and transplant operations help thin herds considered too large for their habitat, and supplement herds that need more numbers to increase genetic diversity.

During the capture operations, a helicopter is used to locate sheep and capture them with a specially fitted gun that fires a net over an animal. Once netted, the sheep are blindfolded and restrained to calm them before they are placed in a sling and hoisted by helicopter to a landing location where they are processed by ODFW biologists and veterinarians.

That's where Bittle and fellow commissioner Bruce Buckmaster of Astoria came into the picture.

Getting invited to a bighorn sheep transplant is one of the plum volunteer opportunities within ODFW, and there were two slots open this year for commissioners.

Bittle says he jumped at the chance to join field biologists in the transplant of 20 pregnant ewes from the Deschutes to the John Day.

"Usually, we as commissioners end up mostly seeing reports," Bittle says. "It's kind of valuable for the commissioners to see up front what the department does, and good for the department to see the commissioners, too."

When a ewe hit the landing zone, Bittle helped the biologists carry the blindfolded animal to an examination table, where the sheep had its nose swabbed and its rectal work done. Every other ewe was fitted with a GPS-transmitting collar so biologists can keep tabs of the herds, which live in some of Oregon's most remote and rugged country.

"There's a beauty to that barren, old land out there," Bittle says.

After that first sheep was whisked away, Bittle and his crew processed four more before their day in the high desert ended.

"To go out in the field and experience that really was something," Bittle says.

Bittle, who owns and runs Willie Boats in Medford, says the interaction with field biologists was "enlightening," and experience with these relatively rare animals a bit mesmerizing.

"I know when I take people fishing that, if it's quiet all the way home, I know they're thinking about what we did, reliving the moment," Bittle says. "That's what I did."

Perhaps if Bittle gets another chance to partake in the moment, he could parlay his experience into a promotion from fecalcollector to nose swabber.

 "That was fun," Bittle says. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.