Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Sheep Capture, Part 3: Processing

Subzero cold was occasionally punctuated by swirling snow and biting propwash each time the Pathfinder Helicopter crew brought more bighorns.
Helicopter lifts off after refueling. MT FWP personnel untangle nets for the next capture. Gibson Dam can barely be seen behing chopper. 2005 photo.

Occasionally the bighorns are placed in the back of the chopper instead of being hauled underneath. 2005 photo.

As the chopper's noise receded biologists from Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, as well as other personnel from MT FWP and several volunteers, all scurried to process the sheep as quickly and efficiently as possible. There was little chit-chat. Biologists wanted to keep the bighorns' stress levels low--so talking was discouraged.

FWP Lab Supervisor Neil Anderson palpates for a vein before taking a blood sample. 2005 photo.

The processors job wasn't as dangerous as the helicopter crew's, but it was just as exacting. Each bighorn had its temperature checked, at least 30 ccs of blood drawn, its nose, throat and ears swabbed, fecal pellets taken, body condition checked, and checked for overall health.

Site of first days capture effort. Deep snow made this the "end of the road." Photo is looking west, up Willow Creek (notch in left of photo). Fairview Mountain is center and right center.

While there was no specific order to the operations, checking each bighorn's temperature was usually one of the first procedures. Any sheep that had a temperature over 104 degrees, or was panting, was doused with water. Temperature and panting are indications of stress, and the biologists wanted to stress the sheep as little as possible.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Lab Technician Rose Jaffe draws blood from a young ewe on Day Two of the capture effort. MT FWP veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey instructs in proper technique. Photo taken below Gibson Dam, Sun River, Montana.

MT FWP veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey, 34, said that the blood would be separated and tested for many diseases, including Brucellosis, Blue Tongue, Anaplasmosis and Bovine Viral Diarrhea. The nose and throat cultures would be checked for Pasteurella (pneumonia) and microplasm. The ear swabs would be tested for psoroptes mites, which could indicate they carried scabies. Ramsey also conducted the physical to look at overall health.

The metal frame work is a speculum. The speculum is used to pry the mouth apart so cotton swabs can take samples from the back of the throat. The samples are later tested for pastuerella and microplasm. 2005 photo.

Neil Anderson, 43, MT FWP Wildlife Laboratory Supervisor gave each bighorn what would appear to be some sort of massage. It wasn't a massage, by palpating the back and loin areas of each sheep Anderson could estimate how much body fat a sheep carried and know their general body condition.

MT FWP Wildlife Technician Kevin Hughes takes samples of earwax at the Day One site near Willow Creek. Cotton swabs with earwax are tested for psoroptes mites, which may indicate the presence of scabies.

Most of the testing was paid for by Utah DWR. However, Anderson said some was paid by Montana. Many discussions developed between breaks of arriving bighorns. In relation to the costs of testing, retired MT FWP wildlife biologist Terry Lonner said, "Without knowing the health of each species there is no way to estimate the health of the entire ecosystem."

Terry Lonner, his son Brent Lonner, who is the current area biologist for the Choteau/Augusta area, Region 4 Acting Supervisor Graham Taylor, and Game Warden Dave Holland spent much of the "down-time" untangling and repacking the capture nets. Region 4 Wildlife Area Manager Mark Schlepp checked-off operations on his clipboard to ensure that every sheep was tested, tagged and radio-collared (half of the sheep were radio-collared.) Schlepp joked when he said, "I can run a pencil, so I must be qualified for this job." Maintenance workers, Tim McWilliams and Stan Buresh did all the "heavy-lifting."

Utah Department of Natural Resources Biologist Brian Maxfield attaches a radio collar to a bighorn.

At the end of day one, there had been a problem with the emergency beacon for the chopper. A different but more taxing problem developed at the end of day two. After two long, cold days everyone was ready to have a shower, food and a good rest, but one more obstacle remained. The 60+ knot winds on day two had built a four-foot high by 30-foot long snow drift at the entrance to Sun River Canyon. After an attempt by one pickup, which had to be retrieved with chained-up pickup, a route was found through the ditch and over a hill.

During the 40 minute trip back to Augusta, everyone stripped off hats, mittens, neck-gaiters and face warmers. There was little talk.

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