RENO (AP) - For the first time in more than 100 years, Nevada's official state animal is back in the Virginia Range just east of Reno.
With the help of 70 volunteers, Nevada Department of Wildlife officials released eight bighorn sheep Sunday on Clark Mountain and plan to release another 30 bighorns there later this week.
Department spokesman Chris Healy said the release of the desert bighorns on the sprawling grounds of the Tahoe Reno Industrial Center 10 miles east of Reno marks the first time the agency has reintroduced the animals on private property.
The department is conducting the effort with the help of TRIC principal and exclusive broker Lance Gilman, Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and the Wild Sheep Foundation.
"Bighorn sheep are native to the Virginia Range, but they died out at some point" after the Virginia City-area mining boom in the 19th century, he said. "When you put native wildlife back into habitat they used to occupy, it's a victory for everyone."
But wild horse advocates criticized the move, saying it'll draw bighorn hunters to the area, and increase pressure to remove feral horses and mountain lions from the Virginia Range.
The range is home to more than 2,000 state-managed "estrays," which are strays or descendants of horses abandoned by private owners over the years. They're distinct from free-roaming wild horses protected under a 1971 federal law.
"What we have experienced in the past is that Bighorns Unlimited will pay for removal of horses where wild sheep are," said Sally Summers of the Nevada-based wild-horse advocacy group HORSE POWER. "I've had hunters tell me they hate wild horses because they alert bighorn sheep that people are coming."
Jeanne Gribbin, past president of the Virginia Range Wildlife Protection Association, said she opposes releasing desert bighorns into the range because they're only native to southern Nevada. Nevada also is home to California and Rocky Mountain bighorns.
"Desert bighorns have never been in northern Nevada. I'm completely against introducing a non-native species that is used for hunting," Gribbin said. "This will absolutely rob feral horses of water in the range. Springs will be fenced off to preclude feral horses."
Early this month, volunteers from Nevada Bighorns Unlimited and the Wild Sheep Foundation constructed two water guzzlers on Clark Mountain for the bighorns. Guzzlers are contraptions that capture rainwater and melting snow in remote places for thirsty animals to drink.
Steve Field, president of Nevada Bighorns Unlimited, said horses are not being fenced off from any natural water sources. "The horses don't water up there on the mountain anyway. They water down on the Truckee River," he said.
It's difficult to say which of the three bighorn species is native to the Virginia Range, Field said, adding it's the horses that cause problems.
"Basically, where you have wild horses all other wildlife leave or attempt to leave," he said. "They take away habitat for deer, antelope and other species."
State wildlife officials don't think the bighorn release will adversely affect horses. The guzzlers will encourage the bighorns to stay close to Clark Mountain, which was habitat not being used by other animals, Healy said.
"They're mountain sheep and they like high places," he said. "Usually you don't find other animals out there using that part of the range."
Hunting could be allowed once the bighorn herd becomes established in a decade or so, Field said. Nevada is home to nearly 10,000 bighorns, the most of any state in the lower 48, he added.