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Wildlife officials tracking sick bighorn

Mon., June 1, 2009, midnight

RIGGINS, Idaho – The hunt is on for a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep ram believed to be sick with pneumonia. It’s a race wildlife officials say could mean life and death for other members of the wild herd in the Salmon River canyon.

Idaho Fish and Game wildlife managers are trying to kill the ram to keep it from spreading disease to the roughly 100 other bighorns that live in the canyon.

But the ram has eluded them for more than a week and is now running with other rams. The afflicted bighorn was seen near domestic sheep, and this incident could prove another flashpoint in the contentious debate over how to manage wild sheep and livestock in remote western Idaho.

“At this point, all we know is we have a sick ram that has interacted with other bighorn rams, and we are just sitting on pins and needles to see what happens,” said Curt Mack, a wildlife researcher for the Nez Perce Tribe in McCall. “The hope is, it won’t turn into an outbreak.”

The ram is reported to be lethargic, coughing, sneezing and discharging mucus from its nostrils, all signs of a disease that has plagued bighorn sheep all over the West. Most wildlife researchers believe it is contracted by wild sheep after coming into contact with their domestic cousins.

The Nez Perce Tribe recently announced it is pulling out of a collaborative bighorn sheep panel called together by Gov. Butch Otter.

Tribal officials said this latest example of the sick, wandering ram illustrates that as long as the two species occupy the same areas, keeping them separate is impossible.

“It’s unfortunate we are placed in the position of having to kill bighorns to save them. This is not a sustainable strategy for recovery,” Nez Perce Chairman Samuel Penny said.

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