12/20/2011 01:42 EST | Updated 02/19/2012 05:12 EST

Big horned sheep poachers in crosshairs of B.C. conservation officers

VANCOUVER - Conservation officers are hunting one or more marksmen who've been blasting big horned sheep in British Columbia's rugged Interior during the off season.

Five of the wild animals were gunned down last week in two separate shootings, their whole carcasses left behind to be scavenged by vulturine birds.

Officers have not yet linked the kill sites, only two hours driving distance apart, but say the rare executions have all the hallmarks of someone playing a twisted game.

"They made no effort to recover anything," said Sgt. Steve Wasylik.

"So if you just stand back and look at it for what it is, the only thing you can come up with is they were used for target practice — thrill killing."

Big horn sheep are often highly-prized trophy animals, owing to their ornate horns that grow full circle, go past the nose and flare upwards.

But all of the slaughtered animals were young adults, between the ages of three and five, and not fully developed.

"Well short of what would be of any value to anybody on the black market," Wasylik said, adding the sheep are also good sources of meat.

"If they were actually after these animals for the horns, they would have taken them because they could have gotten away with it."

The 150 to 200 lbs. bodies of two Rocky Mountain rams, likely killed early last week, were discovered Dec. 13 at a First Nations graveyard in the Fraser Canyon near Lytton, about 150 kilometres southwest of Kamloops.

The scene was so gory, officers at first thought four of the beasts had been shot.

Investigators from Kamloops, Clearwater, Lillooet, along with staff from the federal Fisheries Department and RCMP, searched together over 12 to 16 hectares of land for evidence.

A second report came in last Friday from a ranch near Clinton, 120 kilometres northwest of Kamloops.

Two dead California big horned rams and a ewe were discovered after one of the ranchhands went to check out a flock of ravens, magpies and eagles perched on a cliff.

"All the indications we saw for her was that she was shot once, likely while she was bedded down, and then just tumbled down the cliff after she died," Wasylik said, referring to the female sheep.

The birds had feasted so heavily on the rams, which appeared to have bleed out after being shot, it was difficult to tell how many bullets had done the deed.

Both sets of animals belonged to a native herd of about 40 to 60 that was made more vulnerable because they cluster together during the winter, Wasylik said.

Whomever hoisted the shotgun was likely familiar with the rural back roads, he added, because both shootings occured far afield from a major highway.

"It's frustrating because it's a complete waste. There's no common sense," he said. "Why do people do this? I really don't know what would prompt a person to go out and simply shoot at animals."

Anyone with information should call police or the convervation service's anonymous tip line.