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Bighorn sheep reintroduced along Klamath River

State wildlife officials are in the midst of repopulating California bighorn sheep in a stretch of the upper Klamath River, where the once abundant native animal hasn't been seen since the 1940s.

Teams of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife captured 20 sheep this past week in Grant County and trucked them to Keno, where they were released Friday in the Klamath River Canyon amid federal Bureau of Land Management land about six miles downriver of the John C. Boyle Dam.

At least two more sheep captured Friday within the same herd were scheduled to be released there this morning. It's part of the latest move by the agency to repopulate bighorns extirpated from Oregon about 70 years ago by unregulated hunting and disease.

The sheep are expected to settle in within the steep canyon walls along 15 miles of the remote river stretch that is popular among whitewater rafters, says Tom Collom, an ODFW biologist in Klamath Falls.

"It's not a huge piece of country, but we hope it's enough to sustain sheep," Collom says. "They're very likely to go back and forth over the state line into California.

"Hopefully, the rafters will be able to see sheep and photograph sheep in the canyon," Collom says.

But don't expect that herd to expand into eastern Jackson County, where chances of the sheep appearing are "fairly remote to zero," says Mark Vargas, the ODFW's Rogue District wildlife biologist.

"There's just no habitat for them here," Vargas says. "But anything's possible."

Take, for example, the documented discovery of a jaguar carcass decades ago in the Oregon Caves, Vargas says.

"You may get a stray here or there," Vargas says. "But is there going to be a viable population on the west side of the Cascades? That's a reach."

The 1981 reference book "Mammals of North America" by E.R. Hall states that bighorns historically ranged from British Columbia down the Cascades and into California's Sierra Nevada range, but it does not say where in the Cascades or when they disappeared from Oregon's prominent mountain range.

The Klamath River Canyon sheep come from the Branson Creek area of Grant County, where sheep were reintroduced in 2010.

Wildlife managers removed all sheep from that area during this week’s operation because domestic sheep also graze there, and there is a risk of disease transmission between wild and domestic sheep, says Michelle Dennehy, the ODFW's Wildlife Division spokeswoman.

Domestic sheep can pass the bacteria that causes pneumonia in wild sheep, Dennehy says. Unlike domestic sheep, wild sheep cannot be vaccinated for the disease, she says.

During the operations this week, a helicopter was used to locate sheep before they were captured using a net fired from a specially designed gun out of the helicopter.

Once captured, the sheep were blindfolded and restrained to calm them, hoisted in the air by the helicopter and taken to a location where ODFW biologists and veterinarians processed the animals.

Each bighorn sheep was disease-tested and many were fitted with a transmitter that will send their GPS coordinates twice a day, provided they are standing where they can have electronic contact with a satellite, Collom says.

The Klamath operation is part of a larger program of relocating several bighorns between established herds to improve genetic diversity, Dennehy says. Others were captured in the Deschutes and John Day river canyons.

Historically, California bighorns were the most abundant native wild sheep in Oregon and were found throughout the mountainous terrain of southeastern Oregon.

Bighorn sheep died off in Oregon in the 1940s because of unregulated hunting and their susceptibility to domestic livestock diseases. The first successful bighorn sheep relocation in Oregon occurred in 1954, when 20 California bighorns were relocated from British Columbia to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County.

Since then, the population of bighorn sheep has grown to an estimated 3,500 to 3,700 as a result of ODFW’s restoration efforts. All but about 800 of known Oregon wild sheep are California bighorns, with the remaining ones Rocky Mountain bighorns.

While Oregon annually issues about 100 once-in-a-lifetime tags to hunt California bighorns, the Klamath herd will not be part of any hunts "for the foreseeable future," Collom says.

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

This is the video provided by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife:  

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife release 20 sheep Friday in the Klamath River Canyon about six miles downriver of the John C. Boyle Dam. Photo courtesy of Michelle Dennehy of ODFW