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Sheep studies tracking medication, movements

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Utah's bighorn sheep are the subject of two separate studies.

The first involves the delivery of medication to sheep in Utah County in the food they eat.

The second involves learning the effects of human encounters on the sheep.

For the Utah County project, biologists from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources have created a mixture of good food and medications for the sheep. The medication is for parasites and de-worming and is mixed with alfalfa, apples and hay.

The medication program is conducted in the winter when natural food is scarce and bighorn sheep are more willing to feed on unnatural foods. Biologists watch where the sheep have been congregating and then place several small feed piles in those areas.

The de-worming pellets do not harm those sheep that might eat more than the rest of the herd, and the pellets are even beneficial to other types of wildlife, including deer.

Bighorn sheep are susceptible to several types of parasites, including a deadly bacterial pneumonia that can be transmitted among sheep and from a ewe to her newborn lamb.

Through stress, environmental or climatic conditions, these bacteria are able to migrate into the lungs of the sheep, where they cause lesions that lead to pneumonia. Once infected with high bacteria levels, bighorn sheep tend to get very sick and often die by late summer.

"I have been treating bighorn sheep around the Sheep Creek area near Flaming Gorge for about 10 years now and have seen a significant improvement in the survival rate of lambs," said Charlie Greenwood, wildlife biologist.

The program will continue in areas with lower lamb survival rates and lower population levels.

Craig Clyde, also a biologist with the DWR, started a similar program last month near American Fork Canyon.

Clyde and a corps of volunteers placed about 20 small piles of hay and apples, sprinkled with the medication, on the mountainside where sheep gathered. Within a day the mixture had been eaten.

Plans are to offer the same mixture into other areas along the Wasatch Front where sheep gather.

The purpose of the study near Moab is to learn how hiking, biking and off-highway vehicles affect the sheep in the area.

Last month, wildlife biologists used a helicopter to capture 15 bighorn sheep — four rams and 11 ewes — near Canyonlands National Park.

To capture the sheep, a "gunner" in the helicopter fired a capture net over individual sheep, which entangled the sheep. A "mugger" then jumped to the ground and administered antibiotics and medications to the sheep before fitting collars around its neck.

The collars held Very High Frequency and Global Positioning Satellite radios and transceivers. The radios and transceivers will allow biologists to relocate individual sheep from the ground, from the air or via satellite.

The DWR, along with the Bureau of Land Management. Both, are trying to learn more about the effects of Jeeps, OHVs, bicycles and hikers on the whereabouts and movements of these sheep.

Desert bighorns have been part of the Utah landscape for thousands of years. Native Americans commonly depicted bighorn sheep in their rock art. Bighorns were probably the most common big game animal in Utah, but they were nearly extirpated from the state by the late 1800s.

During the past several decades, the DWR has made huge strides in returning the bighorn to its ancestral range and homeland. Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and desert bighorn sheep are now found in many of Utah's counties, and their numbers and distribution are expected to increase in future years.