It’s before dawn and four of us are in a truck bouncing along a potholed road headed out to a remote location for a hunt. The atmosphere is friendly, good-natured ribbing and talk of past successes and failures in the field. It’s deer season in Arizona and scenes very much like this are being played out all over the state, this one however is decidedly different. For one thing, the other three in the truck are AZ Game and Fish Department Commission Chairman Edward “Pat” Madden, Game and Fish Commissioner Eric Sparks and Special Assistant to the Director, Kent Komadina. We are not on our way to fill a deer tag but to fill the capture crates following us with desert bighorn sheep from the mountains surrounding a working copper mine. The goal for today is to capture at least 30 bighorns for relocation to two separate locations in order to bolster the established herds already there.
I have been lucky enough to be chosen to cover the capture for Safari Club International and am curious as to what the day will bring. Based on the amount of paperwork and releases it is a serious operation and the count on the official list numbers nearly 50 people that will include six video crews recording the event for the Outdoor Channel, AZ Game and Fish Department field officers, wildlife biologists, veterinarians and volunteers from the Nature Conservancy, AZ Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and more.
We are the first truck to arrive at the gates to the mine. We check in with the security officer at the guard shack and wait for the rest of the crew to arrive. Since the capture takes place on private property, there are strict rules as to what we can and can’t do and where we are able to go.
It is still dark and looking down the road I begin to see the first headlights of the others. Soon there is a river of light driving up to the gate and guards directing traffic to an overflow parking lot. Everyone gathers for a security briefing and an overview of what will go on during the capture, after which everyone scatters to load up and follow our guide to the capture site the mine has set up.
The first thing that strikes me is not only the number of vehicles but the variety. The capture crates on the trailer being towed by a 3/4-ton pickup are a given, but there are also trailers carrying water tanks, and of course the refueling truck for the helicopters.
Observing the number of people, I briefly wonder why so many and what could they possibly need that many people for.
Volunteers and AZGFD personnel begin unloading vehicles and setting up. Poles are connected and what initially looks like a jumbo erector set becomes two shade awnings that will act as a triage unit for the incoming sheep. The veterinarians and their assistants stage the blood vials, gloves, thermometers and vaccines to have ready access. Clearly this is not their first rodeo and the efficiency and attention to detail is a result of many years of field experience.
The sun is coming up and in the distance two specks on the horizon begin to grow until the bright red of the capture helicopters make a pass over the area and set down in the landing area. Dust flies as they settle to the ground, then the engines are shut down and the spinning rotors come to a slow stop. The pilots climb out and the crew swarms over the helicopters removing doors and seats and loading up net guns and transport bags. There will be a crew of four for each aircraft: pilot, a netter (also known as a gunner) and two muggers. The netter–as expected–is the one who fires the net gun to capture the sheep. The muggers are the ones who jump out of the chopper, wrap the sheep in the capture bag and either carries it to the interior of the helicopter or attaches a line to the underside of the chopper for transport. Netters and muggers practice jumping in and out of the chopper while the equipment is inventoried and checked.
Ready for Take Off
While the prep work is taking place, AZGFD officers and volunteers use binoculars or spotting scopes to check the mountainside in front of us for sheep. It isn’t long before two groups of about half a dozen each are spotted on the ridge, moving up the side of the mountain in their normal pattern. “Wouldn’t be great if we could make the first capture right here?” says one of the observers. He has no idea how prophetic his words will be.
The helicopter engines start, and soon they lift off one at time to start the capture. The crowd below watches as the helicopters do indeed fly up the ridge in front of us and then hover near the top. A couple of hundred yards apart, at least as it appears from the ground, we watch as the muggers from one of the aircraft leap out and disappear in an arroyo on the mountain. Soon their bright orange jump suits are once again visible as they struggle up the hill with a bundle that we on the ground can only assume is the first catch.
Sure enough, the helicopter wheels around and begins flying back to the landing site with a sheep dangling underneath. The helicopter gently lowers the bundle to the ground, releases the cable and lands nearby to ensure the sheep is protected. Immediately, volunteers carrying a stretcher run out to the bundle to retrieve the sheep and carry it back to the shade tent to begin the triage process. It is like a real life version of a M-A-S-H episode except these are sheep and the helicopter is bright red instead of OD green.
At the triage tent, the real work begins. The sheep, in this case a young ewe, is removed from the transport bag, disentangled from the net and her core temperature is monitored. She is given shots to counteract any chance for infection, blood samples are taken and ear tags placed. After she has calmed down, she is carried over to the crate trailer and loaded into a crate to wait for company as others are captured. Approximately 10 of the 30 animals taken today will also get radio collars so they can be tracked at their new location via satellite. According to Amber Munig of AZGFD, this particular herd has been monitored for a number of years, and have the best chance to blend relatively seamlessly with the herds in the new locations. They have similar disease histories and AZ Game & Fish are hoping the new captures will add genetic diversity to the established herds.
The capture is focusing on a four-to-one ratio of ewes to rams and hoping to capture some mature three- and four-year-olds as well as younger specimens to increase the survival rate. Recent statistics show an approximate 2 percent loss rate for relocated sheep. The other factor that makes this herd such a good candidate for relocation is the fact that the herd numbers around 180. Reducing the numbers gives the remaining members a bit of space to grow and take advantage of the food and water available. Commissioner Sparks half-jokingly refers to the operation as a rescue as much as a relocation, as the mine guards have reported sighting at least three mountain lions in the area. The lions are so used to the activities at the mine that they walk within feet of the vehicles driving the roads of the mine site and show no fear of the vehicles or the personnel in them.
It is early afternoon and a steady stream of sheep have been flown into the landing zone and treated without incident. The only breaks have been for refueling and lunch and at midday it is reported that the capture crew are about halfway to their goal.
Suddenly, things take a serious turn as a ewe that has just come in starts exhibiting signs of extreme stress. Volunteers are calling out the ewe’s core temperature and the news isn’t good. “106.5! 106.9! 107! Temp is still climbing!” The crew swarms around the ewe working desperately to lower her body temperature. According to the veterinarians, if the core temp reaches 108 the ewe could suffer a complete shutdown and death. Elevated body temperature is a major concern and since the first sheep were brought in, each has been put on oxygen to lower their temp and calm them down. The ewe is doused with water and hooked up to an IV drip to lower her temperature quickly. Finally the numbers start going down and when the temp reaches 105 the ewe is determined to be stable and is transferred carefully to the capture crate to rest and recover.
Late afternoon and the helicopter crew is asking for volunteers to replace a couple of the muggers. The sheep continue to come in steadily and thankfully all of the sheep coming in are dealing with the stress well.
The process comes to a halt for about 20 minutes while the mine sets off a charge somewhere in the mine site. The “all clear” sounds and the dance begins again. Helicopters land, sheep are stretchered to the triage tent, tags inserted, paperwork is filled out, blood is drawn, sheep are transferred to the crates. The entire crew has fallen into a rhythm they obviously know well. Everyone pitches in wherever necessary. AZGFD Commission Chairman Madden and Commissioner Sparks are helping to untangle and reset capture nets, observers are filling buckets with water to cool down incoming sheep, everyone is automatically jumping in to help where they’re needed.
The count is getting closer and closer to the magic 30 and finally we hear crackling over the radios, “Last ones coming in.” The pilot of the chase helicopter is hovering at the top of the ridge in front of us, just as he did at the start of the day. But instead of seeing the orange jumpsuits of the muggers exiting the aircraft, the helicopter is zigzagging its way down the ridge. We suddenly understand that the pilot is herding the final two ewes down the canyon to capture them as close to the landing site as possible. As he reaches the bottom of the canyon, the ewes shoot across the clearing and the netters fire, catching both ewes with one net. The muggers leap out and the last of the captures are down. Final count, 33 sheep. Eleven will be relocated to the Guailero mountains north of Tucson, the rest will be released on private land about 175 miles southeast.
The next day, Commissioner Sparks and I are headed to the release point north of Tucson. We are reliving the excitement of the captures from the previous day and discussing the role of hunters in the cause of conservation. Commissioner Sparks points out that aside from the revenues from the Pittman Robertson Act (the excise tax on hunting and fishing equipment that funds state fish and game departments nationwide), virtually all of the money that made this particular capture and relocation possible came from hunting organizations like Safari Club International, AZ Desert Bighorn Sheep Society and others.
SCI’s Tucson chapter donated $5,000 to the relocation project for the third year in a row and SCI Foundation donated another $5,000 as part of their ongoing conservation projects worldwide. “We have to show that hunters are the ones putting their money where their mouth is,” states Commissioner Sparks. “It’s time that organizations like Safari Club get the recognition they deserve for helping preserve wild species at home and abroad. It’s important that people know SCI is instrumental in actual boots-on-the-ground programs that benefit wildlife in North America as well as more exotic locales like Africa and Asia.” He states that the goal of the desert bighorn relocation effort is to ultimately put a sheep on every mountain. Reestablishing the sheep’s historic range.
We are approaching the release point and once again we are part of a larger caravan of vehicles. It is especially windy and the dust kicked up by the vehicles is reflecting the rising sun to create sections of near zero visibility. We reach the release site and after a few words of thanks from AZ Game and Fish representatives and another quick review of the procedures, everyone gets ready for the release. Chairman Madden and Commissioner Sparks are perched on top of the crates ready to raise the door at the end of the countdown. Media and film crews are poised to shoot fast as we have been warned that the release will happen quickly.
Three- two- one…the doors are pulled up and the sheep look out of the crates at their new home for the first time. A moment of hesitation and one of the mature rams leaps from the crate and bounds into the scrub, immediately seeking higher ground. He is immediately followed by the rest of his compatriots in the crate, some exiting less gracefully but still making a beeline for the ridges in front of them. In the second crate, the remaining ewes are balking at coming out. There are three of them and it appears that an overzealous amateur photographer has passed into their direct sightline and they are understandably hesitant to exit. After everyone is instructed to move a step or two back, one of the volunteers provides a bit of incentive at the back of the crate and the last of the sheep leap out and dash up the hill to familiarize themselves with their new home.
On the long drive back to Tucson, I reflect on everything I have experienced in the last two days. The capture, the precision of the pilots, the efficiency of the veterinarians, the overall concern for the health and well being of the sheep–all of this has left an impact–but what has stuck with me and has been evident at every turn is the dedication these people have to this program and their drive to reach that goal…A sheep on every mountain.–Randy Gibbs