By JANICE KURBJUN

Rawlins Daily Times via Associated Press

SINCLAIR, Wyo. (AP) -- Sunlight cut the biting morning air, casting deep shadows behind cliffs snagged high above Seminoe Reservoir. Four inches of snow made the caravan of trucks, Suburbans and trailers slow going around the twisting landscape.

Upon arrival at the Morgan Creek Wildlife Habitat Management Area, though, the trailer gates swung open and 20 bighorn sheep bound from the truck bed. They tore across the snowy landscape and into the hills.

Less than 24 hours before, many of the sheep still roamed the rocky landscape near Paisley, Ore.

The Seminoe Mountain landscape is different from the sheep's home territory, but officials involved in the release hope it doesn't vary too much.

Wednesday's release was somewhat of a trial run. Wyoming Game and Fish officials introduced sheep that they hope are adapted to the short, early forage season afforded in southern Wyoming. It's the first time in about 30 years sheep have been relocated to the area.

Previously, about 100 bighorn sheep from the Whiskey Peak area were released in the Seminoe Mountains. Those sheep were conditioned to lamb late and feed throughout the summer, following forage from 7,000- into 12,000-foot elevations. In the lower elevations of the Seminoe Mountains, however, the growing season is short, lasting about a month before drying up. It meant poor lamb survival, dwindling the herd to less than 20, Game and Fish biologists believe.

"Lambs didn't make the summer," said Greg Hiatt, Wyoming Game and Fish Rawlins wildlife biologist. He said the local biologists collected sheep pellets from the previous introduction for analysis and found indicators that nutrition levels were low.

"They were expecting to be on good, green forage through the summer," Hiatt said.

The hope is that the Oregon sheep can better adapt to the Seminoe Mountains and the herd can grow once again. Progress is to be monitored via GPS collars that gather and store location data in increments to be analyzed when the collars drop on a programmed day.

"This place and lots of other places in the state of Wyoming are historic habitat for bighorn sheep," Game and Fish Regional Information Supervisor Bob Lanka said. "Obviously, things have changed between now and 300 years ago so there's not bighorn sheep in the same places they used to be.

"We're trying to reestablish bighorn sheep in a suitable habitat in as many places as we can, just because it is sheep country. It's part of what is Wyoming and what was Wyoming."

For agency representatives and local landowners present at the release, seeing the sheep dash across the sagebrush was a culminating experience.

It's taken years and "many moving parts" to get the project to where it is now, said Kevin Hurley, the Wyoming Game and Fish bighorn sheep coordinator.

The Bureau of Land Management worked with local landowners to replace domestic sheep enterprises in the area to remove the possibility of disease spread with cattle industry. It meant increasing water source availability, funding for which came from outside agencies.

The BLM also worked with stakeholders for several years on a Resource Management Plan that went into effect in December 2008. It designated the Seminoe Mountain area as a bighorn sheep habitat, protecting it for sheep into the future. More recently, BLM field officials were involved in establishing the sheep habitat by bringing in water sources and clearing trees, BLM Range Management Specialist Mike Murry said.

Meanwhile, Game and Fish officials were at work identifying areas with excess bighorn sheep to pull into the habitat and augment the dwindling herd. They also sought funding for the $115,000 relocation project.

"It took time and this was the culmination," Hiatt said, though there's still about 40 sheep from Utah to be introduced in January.

Hurley said the $115,000 price tag includes the radio collars, capture costs, diagnostic tests, a technician's salary to monitor the sheep for several months and more. Fees for eliciting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Carbon County Predator Management District to eliminate 28 coyotes from the area were also included.

About $93,000 came from the Wyoming Governor's Big Game License Coalition, Hurley said. The rest came from the Wild Sheep Foundation as well as the Wyoming, Minnesota/Wisconsin and Eastern chapters of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep.

"With the agencies working together, a lot of good things can happen," Murry said, including potentially expanding the herd and, if successful, opening it to hunting.

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Information from: Rawlins Daily Times, http://www.rawlinstimes.com

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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