AMERICAN FORK CANYON - With the swift opening of a trailer door, 20 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep scurried up a craggy mountainside near Highland on their way, officials hope, to join their cousins in the hills.
An hour later, 10 more raced up Provo's Rock Canyon, this time with almost immediate results as the sheep quickly joined an existing group. Farther south, crews set free 25 more on Mount Nebo.
All told, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources released 55 bighorn sheep in Utah and Juab counties Monday.
The animals were trapped recently in Montana in hopes of augmenting existing populations of the mountain-dwelling creatures in the Beehive State.
"It's always good to have sheep on the mountain," said BYU student Justin Shannon as he watched the animals climb the rocky cliffs above Provo . "The aesthetic value is pretty high; it just gives you a richer experience when you want to go outdoors."
DWR officials worked for three years to make possible Monday's bighorn release, the first since 2001. Wildlife specialists had hoped to release the animals earlier in the month, but weather problems delayed the process for securing the animals.
"We'd been up in Montana awhile," DWR spokesman Scott Root said. "But trapping Sunday went phenomenal. We got all the sheep we requested."
The sheep were captured by nets dropped from helicopters and then transported to Utah overnight for the morning release.
Officials bought the sheep from Montana for $650 apiece. After tests, shots, de-worming medication and other necessary treatment, each animal cost about $1,000.
Nineteen of the 20 sheep released in American Fork Canyon were pregnant ewes, officials said.
"We're a little picky because if we get a pregnant ewe, we get two for the price of one," DWR wildlife biologist Craig Clyde said.
Clyde said DWR hopes to increase populations at the three northern/central Utah sites to 200 total.
There were an estimated 40 bighorn sheep at each location prior to Monday's release.
"It's not really growing as much as we'd like," Clyde said.
Bighorn sheep are native to Utah, but populations have thinned through the years.
Highland resident Jay Romrell showed up Monday and was all smiles as he watched the animals bound up the hillside.
"It was awesome," Romrell said. "It's just wonderful to see them up on the hills."
Added Lehi resident Jennifer Whiting, who brought along her 3-year-old son, McKay: "It's pretty amazing to see them all go in a group in the same direction. We don't usually see them that closely."