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Bighorns to be introduced in northern Black Hills

DEADWOOD (AP) -- South Dakota wildlife officials plan to introduce up to 40 bighorn sheep in the Grizzly Gulch area near Lead and Deadwood in the northern Black Hills early next year.

Hundreds of sheep roam Badlands National Park and the central Black Hills, but the animals haven't been present in the northern Black Hills for a quarter century. Game, Fish and Parks Regional Wildlife Manager John Kanta told the Deadwood City Commission on Monday night that the 2002 Grizzly Gulch Fire, which scorched about 19 square miles of forest in the area and forced evacuations in Deadwood and Lead, has created prime habitat for bighorns.

"What it did was burn off many trees and open things up," he said. "The steep topography, the lack of canopy and the plentitude of grass makes it ideal as a bighorn sheep area. We are really excited about it."

Game, Fish and Parks will transplant up to 40 ewes, lambs and young rams from western Canada in January or February, the Rapid City Journal reported. The agency likely will blend other bighorns with a different bloodline within five years to ensure genetic diversity.

The agency has been transplanting bighorn sheep into South Dakota since the 1920s, with most activities confined to Badlands National Park southeast of Rapid City and Custer State Park to the southwest, according to Kanta. In the 1990s, the agency created a Rapid City herd that has grown to as many as 250 animals, but that herd recently has experienced slow declines due to a pneumonia that strikes lambs.

"For seven or eight years we've lost a significant portion of the lambs born with this pneumonia," Kanta said. "From our research, we've seen close to 100 percent mortality of our lambs; very little survival. It's important that we continue to build new herds in South Dakota so that they are self-sufficient."