Heavy snowfall and the threat of cold temps made for a few changes to the Nebraska Game and Parks Department’s original Bighorn sheep capture plans in the Panhandle this weekend, but in the end, the department carried out successful captures in the Wildcat Hills and Pine Ridge areas of the Nebraska panhandle Saturday and Sunday.
Fifty one total sheep were captured as part of the annual undertaking by the department that seeks to help officials maintain and monitor the health of Bighorn herds in western Nebraska.
Once tracked and netted via helicopter by contracted Native Range Capture Services, of Nevada, the sheep are brought to staging areas where staff and volunteers perform tasks such as taking blood samples, swabbing for DNA, and assessing the general health of the animal.
Crews also used ultrasound to detect pregnancy in the females, and when found pregnant, implanted VIT devices that signal the eventual birth of a lamb. Inserted vaginally, upon birth of the lamb the sensor is ejected and a frequency change caused by a drop in temperature of the device signals that a lamb has been born.
Once the birth is detected the department seeks to capture the lamb within 48 hours to outfit it with a tracking collar.
Currently, local herds may be at a tipping point as high lamb-fatality rates threaten their existence. Health issues, mainly pneumonia, have been a leading factor in fatality rates, leading Game and Parks, as well as their many supporting entities around the state, to focus in on solutions for an illness that, as of yet, there is no vaccine for.
This year crews at the staging areas provided antibiotics and employed other, more experimental, tactics to hopefully aid the heard in fighting off the pneumonia that continues to threaten the species not just regionally, but throughout western North America.
Because of the general age of the sheep in our area, if mortality rates do not improve, the herds could diminish significantly over the next few years.
Last year’s capture had a perfect pregnancy rate among ewes, and all but one ewe captured this weekend was carrying a lamb.