BIG ARM - More than one theory emerged Thursday morning as what has become an annual transplant of bighorn sheep off of Flathead Lake's Wild Horse Island got off to a molasses-slow start.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Bruce Sterling wondered out loud if the sheep were getting wise.

This is, after all, the third consecutive year the animals' bucolic existence on the island, 99 percent of which is a primitive state park the sheep share with 150 or so mule deer and seven wild horses, has been suddenly interrupted by a helicopter chasing them.

Maybe the shock-and-awe of the experience has turned into more of an "oh-no-not-this-again, time-to-hide-in-the-trees" affair.

Rick Swisher, the pilot of the Hughes 500D helicopter, had his own idea.

"They don't want to leave," he radioed his field truck driver, John Zaczkowski of St. Cloud, Minn., back on the mainland. "They love it out here - there aren't any mountain lions to get them."

That lack of a predator is one reason bighorn sheep are removed from Wild Horse on a now-yearly basis. The population - counted at 230 last week - is double what FWP feels is ideal for the 2,164-acre island.

"The habitat is extremely high quality," Sterling said. "Their reproductive rate is good, and their survival rate is really good because they have no predators on the island."

That includes humans. Both because it is a state park and also land lying within the exterior borders of the Flathead Indian Reservation, hunting is not allowed.

So each winter now, officials capture three or four dozen or so, mostly ewes, and transplant them into other herds in Montana.

But as Thursday began, the sheep were not cooperating.

***

It's a fascinating process, and not without risks to both the sheep and the humans capturing them.

Swisher begins with three other crew members on board his copter - a "gunner" and two "muggers."

They use the helicopter to flush sheep into the open on the island. Using .308 blanks and specially made canisters, the gunner fires a net gun out of the helicopter to trap an animal. Then a mugger leaps out and goes to work, putting hobbles on the sheep's feet, a mask over its eyes - "That really calms them down," Zaczkowski said - and getting the animal untangled from the net.

He then puts the sheep in a bag and readies it to be picked up by the helicopter and airlifted across the water to Big Arm State Park, where a host of FWP employees and volunteers wait to care for it and load it in a trailer.

While one mugger is at work on the ground, the crew goes after another bighorn. When all is working right, they'll get a net over it, drop the second mugger, go back and retrieve the first mugger, and do it again.

And again, and sometimes even again and again before the sheep are taken to Big Arm State Park.

In past transplants, it hasn't been unusual to see the helicopter return to the mainland with as many as five or six bighorn sheep in one load, all blindfolded and bagged, hanging beneath the bird.

But on Thursday, they were coming in just one at a time until, at about lunchtime, Swisher finally, and gently, deposited two at once.

That brought the total number of sheep taken off the island that morning to eight - not the pace they are looking for when their goal is to remove 50 sheep in two days.

***

By day's end, they had 17 ewes and two yearling rams, several below the 30 to 35 sheep that are often captured on the first day of this operation.

The 19 were to be hauled to the Tendoy Mountains south of Dillon on Thursday night and released into an existing herd of about 50.

The danger to the sheep lies in their tendency to overheat when under stress. It's why the transplants take place in the dead of winter (although unseasonably warm temperatures Thursday were 10 or more degrees higher than what anyone hoped for, too).

Sterling said the bighorns' normal body temperature is about 101 degrees.

At 105 to 106 degrees, the sheep are dangerously overheated.

Their temperature is taken both on the island and on the mainland, and Swisher sometimes dips the dangling, not to mention befuddled, sheep in Flathead Lake to cool them down as they're airlifted off Wild Horse.

After being dunked briefly in the lake, flying through the brisk air helps keep the temperatures down as well. Those arriving Thursday morning seemed to be checking in at a safe 103 degrees, and volunteers on the ground often poured more cold water from buckets over the bighorns' bodies to help get them back closer to 101.

***

Swisher's company, Quicksilver Air of Fairbanks, Alaska, and Peyton, Colo., is paid $600 per sheep.

Get all 50 - FWP is aiming for five adult rams, five young rams and 40 ewes - and the Quicksilver bill will be $30,000.

None of which is footed by taxpayers.

A New York hunter who had the high bid at the Wild Sheep Foundation Convention in Reno, Nev., last month - of $300,000 - for a single 2012 Montana bighorn sheep license valid in any hunting district in the state, is paying for it.

FWP got 90 percent of the auction price - the foundation keeps 10 percent - and uses the money for sheep-related programs and habitat acquisition.

Sterling said the operation could go beyond Friday if that's what it takes to collect 50 sheep off of Wild Horse.

"Only two things will shut us down," Sterling said. "One is if the sheep are coming in way too hot, and the other is if we can't get them out of the trees" so they can be captured.

And the trees, the bighorns seemed to be learning, is the place to be when helicopters show up over Wild Horse once a year.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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