The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish hopes to relocate 40 to 60 desert bighorn sheep to the Sacramento Mountains this fall, reintroducing the species to an area where it has been absent for nearly a century.

The move, said Tristanna Bickford, hunter education coordinator for the department, would expand the desert bighorn’s range and numerically increase its statewide population.

“It’s a really good opportunity for the species to re-establish herds,” she said. “This should be a positive impact for both the local species, and the species overall.”

The department will hold a public meeting Wednesday night in Alamogordo to discuss the upcoming project.

In 1980, desert bighorn sheep were listed as endangered, but after three-plus decades of restoration, they were removed from the list in 2011.

There are an estimated 1,200 to 1,400 desert bighorn sheep statewide, said Stewart Liley, the department’s chief of wildlife. He credits similar relocation projects for the species’ steady growth.

“All of our populations started with translocations,” he said, adding that the Sacramento Mountains are the “best remaining vacant habitat, which is the main reason we’re going there.”

Organizers expect initial relocation to begin sometime in early October or November.For several years, they plan to continue efforts, to be sure the restoration is sustainable.

The process, Bickford said, will involve shooting sheep from helicopters with “net guns” — a “safe procedure that’s been developed over a long period of time,” she said.

Afterward, the animals will be taken for medical examinations, in which biological samples will be collected to ensure the sheep are disease-free. Sedatives will be given to alleviate stress, and sheep will be affixed with GPS collars. Lastly, they’ll be loaded into a horse trailer and taken to their new home, located just east of Alamogordo in Otero County.

The operation is not risk-free, officials said.

“There are certainly risks anytime you move wildlife around, and there have been mortalities in the past using net guns,” said Michael Robinson, conservation advocate for Center for Biological Diversity. He added that because “bighorn sheep are very easily stressed,” professionals must take extra care when approaching the animals.

However, Robinson said pros outweigh cons.

“From our perspective it’s an important restoration project, and those risks are worth taking,” he said. “Without these kinds of reintroduction projects, we wouldn’t have desert bighorn sheep, specifically in areas where they are doing really well right now.”

If you go:

What: The State Game and Fish Department is holding a meeting to discuss the relocation of desert bighorn sheep into the Sacramento Mountains. Public comment will be taken.

When: Wednesday at 6 p.m.

Where: Otero County Administration Building, Room 221, 1101 New York Ave., Alamogordo.

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