PANTS BUTTE, Neb. — Ewe No. 70 is the bossy bighorn.
Ewe No. 81 appeared to look for days for its lamb, fatally wounded in an accident.
Ewe No. 87 tends to roam back and forth between two bands of bighorns.
Laura Woodrum notes this behavior and a lot more detailed information weekly about Nebraska's most famous wildlife immigrants — a half-million sandhill cranes are mere passersby each spring — as she monitors three herds of wild bighorn sheep in northwest Nebraska. Her oversight includes the critters that were captured in Canada and relocated here last year.
Woodrum is the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission conservation technician responsible for keeping a trained eye on the newcomers and their American-born lambs.
Fourteen months after the Alberta bighorns' arrival and nearly a year after their first lamb crop in Nebraska, wildlife biologists are delighted with how the sheep are settling in at their new home. They are robust, healthy and big.
“They're huge!'' said Todd Nordeen, the commission's wildlife manager in western Nebraska.
The Canadian ewes weighed about 166 pounds, or 20 to 30 pounds more than ewes in other Nebraska herds imported from South Dakota, Montana and Colorado.
Five rams and 34 ewes from the Canadian Rockies were released on rancher Jim Voeller's Sowbelly Ranch northeast of Harrison in February 2012. Three months later, 25 lambs were born to 33 surviving ewes.
The Alberta bighorns generally have stayed near where they were released — and are collectively known as the Sowbelly herd — but split into two bands of equal size. One group hangs out in bluffs along Pants Butte Road. The other moved about 3½ miles west, to Sowbelly Canyon.
When captured in Canada, each sheep was outfitted with a numbered leather collar bearing a tracking device. An ear tag bears a matching number. That's how Woodrum keeps tabs on adult bighorns.
No. 87 is footloose. She travels between the two bands.
No. 70 tends to dominate other ewes in the Pants Butte group.
“She's always in the lead,'' Woodrum said. “When it's time to go to water or change locations, she's leading them out.''
No. 70 is among the herd elders. She'll be 6 years old in June.
“She'll (head) butt the other ewes in a dominant way,'' Woodrum said. “If you're in her spot, she'll make you move.''
No. 81 lost the only lamb from last spring known not to survive. A motorist found the injured animal on a road. It soon died. A small hole in its right side exposed intestines.
Woodrum remembered a small bloody trail in the area a few days earlier. She had assumed it was from a rabbit captured by a predator. She returned to the site and found more blood in a place where she suspects the lamb impaled itself on a tree branch after being butted off an embankment.
“It's unfortunate, but things happen out here,'' Woodrum said.
Lamb antics usually entertain Woodrum. She watched lambs only 4 or 5 days old scamper up the sides of rock walls in seemingly gravity-defying style last spring.
“It made my hands sweat,'' she said.
Woodrum's job is to observe as many of the Pine Ridge's estimated 150 bighorns as possible each week. She plots their movements, observes behavior and watches for clues to their health.
A typical day begins about 6:30 a.m. at a computer, where Woodrum opens an email with geographic coordinates of the locations of rams overlaid on a Google Earth map.
The Alberta rams and some in a nearby Fort Robinson State Park herd wear GPS collars that transmit their locations to satellites. The data provide instant information on the whereabouts of rams. The information helps biologists establish the bighorns' movements and herd groups. It also provides clues to the habitats bighorns prefer.
A half hour later, Woodrum drives to the general location of a herd she needs to observe. For the Alberta bighorns, it's Pants Butte Road and Sowbelly Canyon.
A receiver in Woodrum's Game and Parks pickup truck beeps when she is near sheep with transmitters. All of the Canadian ewes, when they were captured, were given collars with very-high-frequency transmitters.
Woodrum stops, steps out of the vehicle and tries to pick up the signal with a directional antenna. Then she slips on a small backpack and hikes across grassland, down canyons and over buttes to find the bighorns. She carries the antenna and a receiver. The backpack is loaded with a camera, binoculars, a spotting scope and tripod, a GPS device, a compass and a notebook.
The Pants Butte band hangs out on the ridges and steep slopes in a complex of rocky outcroppings dotted with the black stubs of ponderosa pines. The trees burned in a wildfire seven years ago that created the open spaces and large vistas bighorns prefer for protection against predators. Biologists say the terrain is perfect for bighorns.
Nearly all of the pregnant Canadian ewes gave birth to their lambs at Pants Butte over a two-week period last spring. The 24 births exceeded biologists' expectations. There were concerns about how the stress of relocating to Nebraska from Alberta would affect the ewes.
The mass lambing was the first observed by Game and Parks biologists. Ewes in other Nebraska herds tend to go off by themselves to lamb, Woodrum said. She attributed the birthing behavior to fear of predators the sheep faced in Canada, where lambing in groups offered protection.
The butte-top lambing site provided good escape terrain from predators.
“They didn't leave the bluff,'' Woodrum said.
Woodrum monitors not only the Sowbelly herd but also bighorns at Fort Robinson and at Barrel Butte between Crawford and Chadron State Park. There are 30 to 35 bighorns at Fort Robinson and about 60 at Barrel Butte.
Nordeen, the Game and Parks wildlife manager, has high expectations for another good lamb crop this spring but is concerned about the effects of continued drought and its impact on herd health.
A lack of water is a perennial problem in western Nebraska. Last summer the Harrison area got about 8 inches of precipitation during a year that was Nebraska's hottest and driest on record. On average, northwest Nebraska receives less than 18 inches of precipitation annually, compared with about 35 inches in the southeast corner.
During last summer's historic dry spell, the Alberta bighorns quickly learned to supplement meager creek flows with drinking water in cattle stock tanks.
Drought also affects the growth of wheatgrass, brome, cheatgrass and green sagewort the sheep find on steep slopes for nutrition.
“The lack of any green-up, or significant greening, could be a challenge,'' Nordeen said.
Keeping ewes healthy affects the health of lambs, too.
To help provide adequate water for the herd, the Nebraska Big Game Society donated money for a wildlife water catchment on Voeller's ranch. The contraption consists of corrugated tin panels built on a frame over a regular stock tank. The panels slope inward and funnel dew and rainfall into the tank. The panels shade the water, slowing evaporation. Water drips from the stock tank into a smaller basin for wildlife.
As last summer heated up, Woodrum noticed that ewes who had no lambs had lighter coats. Ewes nursing lambs still had their winter coats. They appeared hot and breathed heavily.
Woodrum said she observes similar traits in cattle. Nursing cows expend more energy feeding their young and have fewer resources to devote to themselves, such as producing summer coats.
The bighorns relied on stock tanks all summer. Woodrum was concerned when ranchers shut down the tanks in the fall after moving cattle from remote pastures to fields closer to ranch buildings for winter.
“But the sheep had no problem finding water,'' she said.
Adults started eating snow. Lambs were slower learners, standing perplexed at empty stock tanks. Woodrum once saw 10 confused lambs standing in a dry tank in search of water.
Despite setbacks from disease and poor lamb survival in some bands, Nebraska has an estimated 340 bighorns — a record population — in five western Nebraska herds. There were none as recently as 1980.
Bighorns are native to Nebraska, and the region once had tens of thousands of the sheep. By the early 1900s, habitat loss, disease and unregulated hunting wiped them out.
The Canadian bighorns created Nebraska's fifth herd in a Game and Parks reintroduction program that began in 1981.
Reintroduction funding comes exclusively from donations and more than $1 million raised from periodic hunting permits sold at auction or by lottery.
Nebraska's goal is to establish free-ranging herds in the Pine Ridge and Wildcat Hills for viewing and hunting.
Although there is a small established colony of mountain lions in the Pine Ridge, the Alberta bighorns have suffered no known losses to the big cats. Nordeen attributed the lack of predation to the herd's Rocky Mountain roots.
“They had mountain lions, bears and wolves to watch for up there,'' he said. “They know how to take care of themselves. We have great habitat here and the sheep have taken to it. So far, so good.''
Built ram tough — ewe, too
Rick Brandt of Lincoln spends six weeks each year tracking bighorn rams in the Pine Ridge to share information with Nebraska Game and Parks biologists.
Brandt, president of the Nebraska Big Game Society, said the size of the Canadian sheep awes him.
“They're bigger and stronger. They're phenomenal,” he said. “They're built like a brick house compared to the sheep from Montana and Colorado. Just great looking.''
Craig Nakamoto of Glenwood, Iowa, president of the Iowa Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, applauded Nebraska's bighorn reintroduction program. The organization has donated an estimated $200,000 to the initiative in recent years.
“We don't have wild sheep in Iowa but we have a lot of good, passionate hunters who believe in the cause,'' Nakamoto said. “We believe our kids and grandkids should have opportunities to enjoy these animals.''
Big game society banquet
LINCOLN —Bighorn sheep, elk, deer and antelope are on the agenda — but prime rib is on the menu — at the Nebraska Big Game Society's annual fundraising banquet April 25 at Wilderness Ridge Golf Club in Lincoln.
The event features an auction for a Nebraska-resident bull elk tag for the 2013 hunting season. Last year's winning bidder paid $17,000 for the tag.
Other auction items include fishing trips to Alaska and Canada and lifetime Nebraska hunting and fishing permits and habitat stamps.
Speakers include Todd Nordeen and Sam Wilson of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Nordeen, district wildlife manager in western Nebraska, will talk about big game. Wilson, the Lincoln-based carnivore manager, will provide an update on mountain lions.
Banquet proceeds will be used to support big game in Nebraska, such as purchasing satellite collars for bighorns, funding scholarships for future wildlife biologists and buying land for big game habitat.
The event begins at 5:30 p.m. The cost is $60 per person. Reservations or inquiries may be made to Rick Brandt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-429-7181 no later than April 21.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1127, email@example.com