TAOS, N.M. (KRQE) – In the Wheeler Peak Wilderness north of Taos, a strange rescue operation has been going on. A helicopter leaves empty. It comes back hauling bags of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep underneath.
On the ground, a team is waiting. The sheep get a full health check up and a new radio collar before they’re put into the “Sheep Shipper”, a trailer bound for the southern Jemez Mountains.
But why all of the hassle?
New Mexico Game and Fish biologist Ellen Goldstein says it’s all about a bighorn problem in one place and a new opportunity in another.
In the Wheeler Peak area, there are simply too many sheep.
“What’ll happen is if you have a bad winter now you’re limited in food resources and you have a lot of sheep, you’ll get a lot of die off in the winter,” Goldstein said.
Meanwhile when the Las Conchas Fire torched thousands of acres in the Jemez in 2011, it also left behind a burn scar that’s actually the perfect home for bighorns.
“We have this new opportunity to put a herd of bighorn sheep in what’s newly created habitat,” Goldstein said.
Game and Fish moving the bighorns from Wheeler Peak to the Jemez Mountains solves two problems at once.
As of Wednesday morning, the state had moved more than 40 sheep during the multi-day operation.
Catching them is no easy feat. Goldstein says crews have to lure the bighorns under big dropnets using bait such as salt licks, alfalfa and potato chips.
The sheep transplanted also get a radio collar so scientists can better study their daily habits.