An unusual conservation strategy is saving one of the American West's most iconic species, one helicopter ride at a time. Bighorn sheep, which once roamed North America at numbers as great as 2 million, dwindled to a population of just 20,000 in the 19th century, thanks to diseases contracted from herds of domestic sheep that were introduced near them. But, happily, the species is coming back, The New York Times reports:
In recent decades, state wildlife management agencies have undertaken extensive conservation work to help bring bighorn sheep back from the brink. Much of the work focuses on capturing bighorns from successful herds and relocating these sheep to other areas where the species once thrived.
Once their historic range was identified, the next obstacle was simply figuring out how to transport the animals -- a problem for which a creative solution was found:
Biologists found that the most effective and safest way to capture wild sheep was to fire large nets at them from moving helicopters. The bighorns, which can weigh several hundred pounds, are carried in bags beneath the helicopter to a handling area where veterinarians draw blood samples and examine the sheep for injuries and signs of disease. If the sheep are healthy, they are loaded onto a large trailer and transported to their new home.
After over 2,000 of these transfers (during which the animals are blindfolded so they don't get spooked), the hard work is paying off. Populations have boomed -- so much so that Paul Krausman, a professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Montana, called the program "probably the biggest thing we've done" to help the species.
While conservationists still fear contact with domestic sheep and resulting diseases, efforts are being made to buy land from farmers or pay them to raise cattle on it instead, which can't pass diseases to bighorn sheep. And many remain confident for the future of the once-decimated species -- Kevin Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation said there is "a lot of reason to be optimistic and hopeful."