The crowd gathered for the bighorn sheep sendoff in Nevada far outnumbered the 21 animals who galloped out of their pens and into their new habitat. But the small number of sheep could be instrumental in securing the species' future.
The Nevada Department of Wildlife and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe teamed up to release the desert bighorn sheep into the hills of Pyramid Lake, near the west Nevada-California border, last week. The animals haven't lived in that part of Nevada in 100 years, wildlife experts said.
Desert bighorn sheep, Nevada's state animal, once populated the state in the tens of thousands. But with Western settlement, their populations shrunk with excessive hunting and human encroachment.
They were virtually eradicated from Pyramid Lake in the top of the 20th century.
That was until bighorn sheep conservationist Larry Johnson hatched a plan for the species' restoration. He proposed it to the Paiute Tribe and the Department of Wildlife. Now, more than one year later, he watched their reintroduction to the land they hadn't known for nearly a century.
"It's an extremely important reintroduction both from a wildlife standpoint, as well as a cultural standpoint for many Native American tribes across the West," Johnson told the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
In 2018, the Department of Wildlife signed a resolution designating the desert bighorn sheep as a protected species, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported. For the next five years, they can occupy the land without being hunted.
Capturing them went semi-smoothly. Crews shot nets at the sheep from helicopters to catch them in Sheep Creek Range, their former habitat.
Officials counted 17 ewes (those are the female sheep) and four rams. Every adult female is pregnant, so about 12 will give birth in the spring, CNN affiliate KTVN reported.
Mike Cox, a bighorn sheep staff biologist at the Department of Wildlife, said the new habitat could see more than 100 sheep in the next five years.
"It's a perfect opportunity to remove some of those and give them a little bit more space and then allow a herd to take off here and grow on their own," Cox told KTVN.
"We've recovered a species lost in time," Emily Hagler, biologist for the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, told KTVN. "It's been a main focus of the tribe for many years, recovering our fisheries and now to be able to recover a large game species is incredibly tremendous."