By Esther Godson
Special to The SUN
To gain a better understanding of wild Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) and the U.S. Forest Service will continue their efforts on a five-year project to study the cliff-dwelling mammal.
Starting in late January or as conditions allow, a helicopter crew will be used to locate and capture bighorns and fit them with GPS telemetry collars. The collars will allow biologists to follow daily movements of the animals and determine what areas of the wilderness they use.
Crews may also swab nasal tissue and take blood samples that could be used to determine if the bighorns have been exposed to diseases that can adversely affect the animals. These actions will help the agencies achieve conservation objectives for bighorn sheep herds on National Forest System lands. This will be the third year that helicopter crews will be used to capture and collar bighorns in the Weminuche Wilderness.
The remote nature of the Weminuche bighorn herds has made detecting and monitoring the animals from the ground difficult. Consequently, the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Region has approved landing the helicopter in the wilderness for the project. Weather permitting, the capture crew will attempt to capture up to 15 animals. They anticipate one to two days of flight operations with no more than 34 landings. In the primary capture area, roughly between Vallecito Creek and Wolf Creek Pass, there are about 395 bighorns that reside primarily in the Weminuche Wilderness.
“We don’t know a lot about how these bighorns use the landscape,” said Brad Weinmeister, a terrestrial biologist for CPW in Durango. “We know that this area provides good habitat, but we’d like to get more information to help us with management plans.”
Four of the five Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep herds occurring on the San Juan National Forest are in the Weminuche Wilderness.
CPW considers the Weminuche population to be a top priority for statewide inventory and monitoring, habitat protection and improvement, disease prevention and research. The project is being funded by the U.S. Forest Service, CPW and the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Society.
If you have specific wildlife questions, please contact Joe Lewandowski, public information officer, CPW Southwest Region, at 375-6708.