Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorns In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Adventure photographer Bill Decker, on assignment from fieldandstream.com, captured on film an intense desert operation to relocate Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep from the Phelps Dodge Mine in the Clifton-Morenci region of eastern Arizona to the West Clear Creek area on the Colorado Plateau, some 52 miles southeast of Flagstaff. Using tranquilizer guns like this one (effective range = 50 yards) -- as well as net guns fired from helicopters -- officials and volunteers from the Arizona Game & Fish Department and the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society (ADBSS) targeted and ultimately captured 32 bighorns for relocation. Whether or not Rocky Mountain bighorns (subspecies cousins of the Arizona desert bighorn sheep) are native to Arizona is the subject of debate. What is certain is that herds of "Rockies" that have taken hold in Arizona in recent years are flourishing. The Clifton-Morenci herd, including some of the largest rams in the state, is believed to have migrated over the New Mexico border after a previous Rocky Mountain bighorn introduction/relocation project. An estimated 800 Rocky Mountain bighorns now range in Arizona, and many of them are concentrated here, in east-central Arizona. By identifying prime habitat -- places with sustainable food and water sources and limited pressure from agribusiness -- and transplanting animals to these other areas, wildlife officials hope to significantly expand the statewide range of one of the most valued big game species in North America.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Here, two handsome Rocky Mountain bighorn rams tend to their harem of ewes on a jagged hillside near Clifton, Arizona. At this point in the operation, game officials must decide whether to stalk these animals on foot, hoping to lure them within the short range of tranquilizer guns, or use helicopters to cast nets from above. The barren terrain is a complicating factor; wary bighorns scale canyon walls with relative ease. Finding the herd is one challenge. Sneaking into position -" from the ground or from above -" and capturing the animals is an entirely different story.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

An accurate shot with the tranquilizer gun brought this ram, briefly, to the ground. Here, workers (dubbed "muggers-¿) grab the ram by its horns, preparing to blindfold the animal. Like their bighorn subspecies cousins, the Arizona desert bighorn sheep, what few "Rockies-¿ roam the Grand Canyon state are noted for their trophy curls, often measuring 40 inches (outside) or more. In Arizona, a class 4 Rocky Mountain bighorn ram can easily score 175-185. Hunting bighorns is highly regulated in Arizona, but drawing a tag virtually guarantees the hunter a lifetime trophy. This young ram isn't exactly in that category; he's also missing the tip from one of his horns, possibly the result of a sparring injury. But now he'll be prime breeding stock in an area of the state that had not previously seen significant numbers of the big sheep.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

A relocation project team hauls this large ram -" also darted and tranquilized from the ground, and estimated at 200 pounds -" down a rocky slope toward an impromptu "M.A.S.H-¿ unit, where it will be evaluated and prepared for relocation. Even sedated, an adult male bighorn is a handful -" note the safety gear on the volunteers. Once sedated, the animal is restrained with ropes and straps, and blindfolded to minimize panic. In this case, the workers position the animal on a sled to slide it down the mountainside so the ram won't suffer abrasion injuries in the rocky and cactus-bearing terrain.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Other bighorns are captured via the net-gun, fired from a helicopter hovering overhead. Once secured with restraints and blindfolds by the ground support team (again, designed to minimize stress-induced panic among the animals), they are airlifted to the M.A.S.H site. It isn't exactly flying first-class, but by transporting the sheep in pairs with a harness sling beneath the helicopter, wildlife experts are able to expedite the capture, examination, tagging, and transport process as much as possible.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

The Eagle Creek pump station was turned into a "M.A.S.H.-¿ unit for this operation, accepting bighorn sheep "patients-¿ as they were choppered in from the surrounding area. Here, a team of volunteers works with one of the animals in the examination area, while another volunteer tends to a ewe that has just been shuttled to the site.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

In the "M.A.S.H-¿ area, game officials and volunteers administer an I.V. solution to keep the animal hydrated and to minimize stress. This team of muggers restrains the sheep to remove the netting from the helicopter-fired capture device, then holds the animal in place while veterinarians perform a battery of tests to evaluate its health. Vital statistics for each animal are recorded and entered in a database which can be used in monitoring the herd after relocation.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Some of the bighorns also receive ear tags used to track and monitor their movements within their new range. Rocky Mountain bighorns prefer higher altitudes, but like their subspecies counterparts, the Arizona Desert bighorn sheep (which tend to be slightly smaller), these animals are highly adaptable. They feed primarily on desert and plateau grasses, and can find moisture in cactus plants. Their natural predators include mountain lions, eagles, and coyotes.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

In a transport crate, a wide-eyed ram has only moments more to wait before his release. Will Rocky Mountain bighorns proliferate in Arizona? It's hard to say, but judging from the results of this program to date, the outlook is very encouraging.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

After capture, tagging, and examination by wildlife officials and ADBSS volunteers, this adult ram bolts to freedom in the rugged outback of the Colorado Plateau. The point of release, when the effects of tranquilizing drugs have worn off and the confused animal darts toward open land, can be dangerous. Workers (and photographers) must be careful to position themselves behind the release gates so as not to get caught between a hard-charging 200-plus-pound bighorn and its freedom.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

No worse for the wear ... this tagged ram wanders off into his new environment, perhaps a bit dazed and confused, and wearing a bloodstain on the hind quarters from his tranquilizer shot, but no doubt better off for the experience. This bighorn, and a carefully balanced herd of 32 more ewes and rams collected during the operation, join about 30 sheep previously relocated to the region. Operations planned for 2007 will boost the number of bighorns at the site to a total of 100.Bill Decker
Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

Darting Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep In Arizona

"The mission of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society (ADBSS) is to promote the management of bighorn sheep and increase their population in the state of Arizona. When the Society was originally formed, its sole emphasis was on desert bighorn sheep. In the past several years, however, a significant population of Rocky Mountain bighorns has been established in portions of eastern Arizona, and our efforts now include that species as well.-¿ In this case alone, ADBSS funded the project to the tune of $32,000, roughly $1,000 for each of the animals relocated. The ADBSS will hold its annual fundraising banquet on Saturday March 17, 2007, at the El Zaribah Shrine Auditorium in Phoenix. Among the featured auction items will be a coveted "Commissioner's Tag-¿ to hunt a Rocky Mountain bighorn in Arizona (nonresidents and residents are able to bid). For information, see www.adbss.org.Bill Decker