After a 12-hour overnight ride from north-central Montana, the sheep were anxious to get out of this trailer.
So when the door finally opened, they did what Rocky Mountain bighorns do best -- bolting into the snow and scampering up the rocky slope to safety, as state biologists celebrated the release.
"They looked excellent," John Kanta, regional wildlife manager for the South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Department in Rapid City, said. "I'm very happy with the results. Everybody looked happy and healthy. We didn't have any injuries that I noticed, and they're all up on the mountain there. So we look real good."
Kanta and other GF&P wildlife specialists brought 20 bighorns from the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation in Montana to Hell Canyon, along with 20 more bound for release in the South Unit of Badland's National Park. The sheep released west of Custer will bolster a herd of about 100 at nearby Elk Mountain.
That herd moves back and forth between Elk Mountain along the Wyoming Line and Hell Canyon. The release Tuesday was at the northwestern corner of Jewel Cave National Monument, onto U.S. Forest Service land about 14 miles west of Custer.
"We consider this an augmentation to that (Elk Mountain) herd," Kanta said. "We're bringing new genetics in and making this herd healthier, genetically speaking."
It's already the healthiest bighorn herd in the Black Hills, so far avoiding pneumonia problems that limit herds near Rapid City and in Custer State Park. GF&P is holding off on adding new sheep to those herds until the disease issues are under control.
Some area sportsmen rose early to join the wildlife professionals for the release.
"It's just an amazing, wonderful thing to see. You don't see it everyday," Bill Baker of Custer said. "And I really appreciate what the Game, Fish & Parks is doing in conservation."
Kanta said there were 15 ewes, two female lambs, two male lambs and one ram yearling in the sheep released in Hell Canyon. And since most of the ewes are pregnant, they impacts of the release will be multiplied this spring.