Saving Big Horn Sheep that roam Hell's Canyon is dangerous operation

ASOTIN, WA - Washington Fish and Wildlife leaders are conducting a potentially life-saving operation for wild game.

KLEW News takes you to Hell's Canyon to watch volunteers try to save big horn sheep from a devastating disease.

Getting Big Horn Sheep off the side of a ridge is quite an operation.

"We're using a contract capture crew which is net-gunning sheep from a helicopter," said District Wildlife Biologist, Paul Wik.

"Since it's Big Horn Sheep they're going to be on steep hillsides," said Wik. "So the crew has to work pretty hard to keep them from rolling down the hillside when they're all tangled up so they have a pretty tough job."

Wednesday, Paul Wik of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife along with many volunteers from other regional organizations are checking these big, beautiful creatures for a deadly disease.

"Most herds have an expected number of lambs born that can have zero percent survival by twelve weeks of age due to pneumonia," said Wik.

The disease is killing off herds in the region, and biologists don't know how they're getting it. The goal of Wednesday's operation is to get DNA samples from a herd that roam Hell's Canyon. Then they can identify the sheep that carry pneumonia.

"The disease problem has been the biggest detriment to wild sheep conservation for thirty years now," said volunteer Tom Petereson.

Tom Petereson is a board member for the Oregon Foundation of North American Wild Sheep. He's here as a volunteer on this operation and is an avid trophy hunter.

"We also spend a lot of money doing it and the money we spend goes back in the ground for those animals," said Petereson.

It's not all bad news. The work these groups are doing have more than tripled the population of these wild animals in this part of the country.

"They've done a lot of trapping and transplanting over the last thirty years all over Western America and the wild sheep populations are just burgeoning because of it," said Petereson.

Now it's just a matter of finding the source of the deadly pneumonia.

The sheep are tagged and sampled every year as part of this on-going study.