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Bighorn Restoration in Nebraska

January 31, 2023
posted in: Conservation, News

Bozeman, Montana. January 30, 2023. In September 2022, the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission successfully captured, tested, collared, and released 28 bighorn sheep in the Wildcat Hills as part of a two-phase project to enhance the state's bighorn sheep population. The project was funded in part by the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF), its Chapters and Affiliates, and other conservation partners.

"Phase One was to identify, via helicopter capture, disease-free individuals for a relocation trap and transfer scheduled for February 2023," said Kevin Hurley WSF's VP for Conservation. "NGPC also collected biological samples to compare three different disease testing methods against each other, to improve the overall speed and reliability of testing, something all WSF’s agency partners can use going forward."

WSF facilitated raising $160,200 to purchase the GPS tracking collars for this first capture. Iowa FNAWS contributed $50,000 to this project. Partners making $25,000 donations included Grizzly Outdoor Corps of Winston-Salem, NC, and the Gilchrist Foundation of Sioux City, IA. A dozen WSF Chapters and Affiliates each pledged $5,000, including Utah WSF, Midwest WSF, Washington WSF, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, Montana WSF, Texas Bighorn Society, Wild Sheep Society of BC, Oregon WSF, Alaska WSF, New Mexico WSF, California WSF, and Idaho WSF. Karen Gordon of Alaska also individually contributed $200.

Nebraska was once home to abundant bighorn sheep populations. By all accounts, they were gone by the early 1900s. Repopulating the Cornhusker State began in 1981 by translocating surplus wild sheep from other states. Today there is an estimated population of 250-275 bighorn sheep.

Historically and today, the loss of wild sheep has been traced to disease die-offs from pathogen/disease transmission from domestic to wild sheep.

This was truly a group effort, from funding to execution to testing," Hurley explained. "Those of us standing guard over our wild sheep know we have got to get a handle on the number one thing holding back recovering wild sheep in more of their historical ranges – disease."

Biological samples were gathered from the captured, collared, and released sheep. Nasal swab samples were, and will be, sent to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL), currently considered the “gold standard” diagnostic lab for testing for the bacteria Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (Movi).

For the upcoming February capture 2023, a field PCR amplification tool known as a Biomeme will be utilized for on-site diagnosis of Movi presence. In addition, in a pioneering effort, Working Dogs 4 Conservation (WD4C) will be on hand to provide another diagnostic tool for Movi testing in the field. This is a promising new program where "sniffer" dogs have been trained to detect the presence of Movi from sheep fecal pellets.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission plans to capture 50-70 bighorns during the fall and winter of 2022 and 2023. Most will be released, but this February, between 20-25 ewes are scheduled to be transplanted to the Pine Ridge region of Nebraska's panhandle, where there is a shortage of breeding-age ewes.

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