ANTELOPE ISLAND — Without so much as pause to look around, six Californians rushed to take up housekeeping in their new digs here Wednesday.

Of 10 California bighorn sheep that were trapped in Nevada, traded to Utah and scheduled for release on the island, six—four rams and two ewes — actually took up residency. Four succumbed to the pressures of trapping.

Two died in pens in Nevada and two died en route to Utah.

This is the second group of bighorn sheep released on the island. In March of 1997, 23 California sheep were trapped in British Columbia, driven to Utah and released on the island. All 23 sheep - 19 ewes, three rams and one young ram — survived the move.

According to Garth Taylor, manager of the island for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, the herd currently numbers between 60 and 65 animals. And, he said, "All are doing well."

Jim Karpowitz, head of the once-in-a-lifetime big game program for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and the state's sheep expert, said the choice of California sheep, genetically almost identical to the Rocky Mountain bighorn, centered on the fact that the species does well in habitat similar to that on the island.

"We got the sheep," he explained, "as part of a reciprocal agreement between neighboring states. We gave them antelope, and will do more in the future, and they gave us sheep. It's all part of a program to help re-establish big game animals in the northwest. We help them and they help us."

The sheep will be part of a "source stock" on the island, said Karpowitz. When the sheep get to a management objective, around 120 animals, a certain number will be trapped and moved to other "previously identified" locations in Utah.

In recent years there has been a movement to strengthen the wildlife population on the island. Biologists first brought in new blood for the buffalo herd, which through inbreeding had become stunted and were experiencing low productivity. Today there are more than 700 buffalo on the island.

Other longtime residents include mule deer, coyote, bobcats and chukar.

In 1993, antelope were reintroduced, followed by a failed attempt to put elk on the island. Only one of 17 elk put there in 1995 actually stayed.

There are also more than 200 species of birds on the island.

Despite appearances, the island is a perfect sanctuary for big game animals. There is a wide range of habitat, from prairies to ragged mountain tops, and an abundance of food. There are also more than 30 natural springs.

The fact that the sheep numbers have risen so rapidly, considering bighorn sheep seldom birth twins, doesn't surprise Karpowitz.

"In a new area such as this, with an abundance of food and no predators, sheep typically do real well the first few years," he added. "That's what we're seeing here."

Karpowitz said he wasn't sure why the four sheep died.

"We seldom lose an animal. We'll have to talk with the game officers in Nevada to find out just what happened and what caused the animals to die," he said.

The sheep were caught by throwing a trap net from a helicopter and then airlifting them to holding pens.

The bighorn sheep population in Utah is currently thriving. Nearly wiped out in the 1950s and 1960s by disease and uncontrolled hunting, the current population of sheep—desert, Rocky Mountain and California—numbers more than 3,000. Where sheep were once found in only five areas of the state, they are currently in more than 20 locations.