Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife relocated 40 California bighorn sheep this month to two new Oregon locations: Cottonwood Canyon State Park and near the John Day Fossil Beds. (See photos here) Bighorn sheep are native to both areas, ODFW reports. The relocations are part of ongoing efforts to restore the animal to its native range.

The bighorn sheep released were first captured from areas where they are more plentiful—20 from around the Lower Deschutes River and 40 from around the John Day River. Twenty were released at each of the two Oregon locations and the final 20 sheep went to the Seminoe Mountains in Wyoming.

A helicopter was used to herd and hoist the animals during the capture operations, with help from a net fired from a specially-designed gun. Once captured, the sheep were disease-tested and many were fitted with a transmitter to track their movements.

Bighorn sheep are one of the rarest game mammals in Oregon today. They were extirpated from the state by the 1940s due to unregulated hunting and their susceptibility to domestic livestock diseases. 

The first successful bighorn sheep relocation in Oregon occurred in 1954, when 20 California bighorns were located from British Columbia to the Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge in Lake County. Since then, the population of bighorn sheep has grown to an estimated 3,500-3,700.

A small population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep live in the Wallowa Mountains; the rest of the animals in the state are California bighorn sheep. ODFW generally relocates 20-80 bighorn sheep annually with the ultimate goal of creating healthy bighorn sheep populations in all available, suitable habitats within Oregon.

Cottonwood Canyon is a new state park in the John Day River Canyon that’s scheduled to open in 2013. There are a few bighorn sheep in the park’s southern edge, but this month’s operation was the first time sheep have been released in the park.

“We’re excited to welcome the return of bighorn sheep to the northern reach of Cottonwood Canyon State Park,” says State Park District Manager Chris Parkins. “When the park opens in 2013, our new visitors will be swept away by seeing native wildlife in this rugged canyonland.”

The other release occurred on BLM land, in the Branson Creek portion of the upper John Day River, near the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

As the herds get established in these two locations over the next few years, visitors will be able to view and eventually hunt the sheep.

Less than 100 bighorn sheep tags are offered to hunters each year on a “once-in-a-lifetime” hunt basis. ODFW also auctions and raffles off a bighorn sheep tag each year at events sponsored by sportsmen conservation groups; proceeds from the sales benefit the management of bighorn sheep.

Sportsmen conservation organizations like FNAWS also contribute monies to fund bighorn sheep recovery across North America.