FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — For the first time in a century, endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep are back on their ancestral range and headed toward recovery, wildlife officials said Monday.
During an ongoing relocation effort, dozens of bighorns have been captured with nets dropped from helicopters then moved to Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.
"We've got the sheep where we want them on a broad geographic basis, which is a huge milestone," California Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Tom Stephenson said. "We've still got to get their numbers up a bit."
Thousands of the sheep once roamed the Sierra Nevada but overhunting and disease spread by domesticated sheep herds caused near-extinction.
Between 1914 and 1986, no bighorn roamed Yosemite, and statewide their numbers hit a low of about 100. The animals were placed on the federal endangered species list in 1999.
Today, about 600 exist statewide in areas critical to their survival, Stephenson said.
The number is about three-quarters the size called for in the state recovery plan that indicates the importance of the animals to the survival of mountain lions, bobcats and coyotes.
Bighorn sheep thrive on cliffs and rocky outcropping, where they watch for predators. Standing over three-feet tall at the shoulder, rams have coiled horns that they use to butt other males during breeding season to compete for ewes.
"Bighorn sheep are a true symbol of wilderness and represent the need to protect wild lands," said Frank Dean, president of the Yosemite Conservancy, which has donated $630,000 in the past two decades to support Yosemite's bighorn sheep.
State biologists moved sheep from thriving herds in Inyo National Forest, in the southern end of the mountain range. Each was examined and fitted with a GPS tracking collar.
Last year, 14 sheep were relocated into Sequoia National Park, and another seven ewes and four rams are being relocated in the Laurel Creek area of the park. Another nine ewes — eight of them pregnant — and three rams were trapped and released into Yosemite.
Yosemite wildlife biologist Sarah Stock said only the most intrepid park visitors will ever see the sheep that roam high in the backcountry at elevations above 7,500 feet. She says helping them recover rights a wrong.
"I think it says a lot about humans," Stock said. "We're capable of correcting mistakes of the past by returning this charismatic Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep back to its native habitat."