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Bighorn sheep fly over Interstate 84

More than a dozen bighorn sheep got the ride of their lives last week as state wildlife biologists looking to thin a herd caught rubberneckers' eyes on Interstate 84 along the Columbia River near Rufus.

Twenty-nine bighorns from what is known as the "I-84 herd" because they can be seen from the freeway were whisked away by helicopter for eventual release in Baker and Malheur counties, where they will bolster existing herds.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife wanted to remove some of these bighorns because they were outgrowing their limited habitat and causing public-safety concerns from motorists stopping to gawk at some of Oregon's most rare game mammals.

Stopping on the freeway shoulder and getting out to view wildlife is illegal and dangerous, according to the ODFW. Also, officials fear the sheep will step into traffic and cause accidents.

The bighorns were trapped by crews that blindfolded and hobbled the animals before they were tethered and carried beneath a helicopter.

"From I-84, you could see the helicopter working the cliffs," says Michelle Dennehy, an ODFW spokeswoman who took part in the captures. "It was pretty fantastic."

Oregon Department of Transportation officials were on hand to keep traffic moving, Dennehy says.

The helicopter took the sheep to a base camp, where the animals were stabilized, vaccinated and checked for disease, Dennehy says. They also were fitted with radio transmitters so their movements can be monitored.

Once completed, the animals were loaded in trucks for shipment and released, Dennehy says.

The ODFW was assisted in the relocation by Oregon Chapter members of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.

The I-84 herd first emerged in the mid-1990s, likely migrating from the John Day River Canyon after a wildfire there.

Motorists traveling along I-84 are encouraged to pull over at the Blalock or Philippi Canyon exits. From the end of the exits, sheep often can be spotted with a pair of binoculars.

A Central Point man who helped the Middle Rogue Steelhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited earn two national volunteer awards was named the club's Steelheader of the Year.

Ray Tharp won the club's highest yearly award, which was presented during the club's annual Christmas party and awards ceremony Monday in Grants Pass.

Tharp chairs the chapter's committee that does in-stream habitat and monitoring work, for which the club received two national awards this fall.

The chapter won the Silver Trout Award as one of Trout Unlimited's top chapters for the year. It also won the "Rise to the Future" award presented by the U.S. Forest Service for outstanding work in angler education, in-stream projects, and the donation of more than 6,000 hours of volunteer work.

Other winners of certificates of appreciation included: Lou Hickey of Grants Pass; Gary Still of Grants Pass; Mark Kelso of Grants Pass; Cole Tidwell of Rogue River; Heike Arnold of Grants Pass; Richard and Lea Emanual of Medford; and Doris Welborn of Grants Pass.

For more information on the chapter, visit its Web site www.rogue-steelheader.org.

A program on fly-fishing the Umpqua River system will be the highlight of Wednesday's meeting of the Medford-based Rogue Flyfishers Association.

Roseburg fishing guide Gary Lewis will present his program on fishing for shad, smallmouth and steelhead on the Umpqua.

The monthly meeting will be at the Red Lion Hotel, 200 N. Riverside Ave., Medford. It starts with a 6 p.m. no-host "Wet Fly" hour, followed at 7 p.m. by the buffet dinner, meeting, raffle and program.

Guests are welcome. For more information, call 541-858-5981 or visit the club's Web site at: www.rogueflyfishers.org.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

A bighorn sheep is whisked away after being trapped by wildlife officials along the Interstate 84 corridor near Rufus. - Photo courtesy of ODFW