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Disease kills 30 bighorns near Yellowstone

A pair of bighorn sheep feeds just outside Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner, Mont., Jan. 24, 2004. (Associated Press)
A pair of bighorn sheep feeds just outside Yellowstone National Park near Gardiner, Mont., Jan. 24, 2004. (Associated Press)

WILDLIFE --  Montana wildlife officials say an apparent pneumonia outbreak has killed about 30 bighorn sheep from two herds in the Gardiner area near the border of Yellowstone National Park.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife biologist Karen Loveless of Livingston tells The Billings Gazette the die-off seems to be slowing down. At least 10 sheep were reported dead by mid-December.

Lab tests will determine the cause of death, but pneumonia is the likely culprit. Loveless says one lamb tested positive for bacteria that attack the lungs, causing symptoms similar to pneumonia.

A small group of 25 to 30 animals that live at the base of Tom Miner Basin is down to 17 sheep. The rest of the sheep were lost from a herd near Cinnabar that last totaled 90 animals.

Loveless says the outbreak has not spread to bighorn sheep in Yellowstone National Park.

"The bighorn sheep are native to the area," reports Gazette outdoor writer Brett French. "Evidence has even been found in the surrounding canyons of ancient traps and blinds used by hunters in the region thousands of years ago."

Following is French's full report with a lot more heartbreaking details.

About 30 bighorn sheep — roughly one-third of two herds that live in the Gardiner area — have died this winter, probably from an outbreak of pneumonia.

“It seems to be slowing down,” said Karen Loveless, a wildlife biologist for Fish, Wildlife and Parks based in Livingston. “But I did just get another report of a dead sheep.”

Whether that bighorn died of disease won’t be known until laboratory tests can be completed. Loveless was also awaiting lab results from earlier samples taken from dead bighorns. But the first dead lamb did test positive for bacteria that attack the sheep’s lungs, causing symptoms similar to pneumonia.

Oddly, the two herds that have taken the biggest hit are fairly far apart. One, a small group of about 25 to 30 that lives at the base of Tom Miner Basin, has dwindled to 17 sheep. The other herd, near Cinnabar, last totaled about 90 bighorn sheep, but getting a current count has been difficult because the animals disperse after the December rut, Loveless said. Yet she noted that most of the dead sheep have been from the Cinnabar herd.

Almost the entire lamb crop from the two herds has been decimated and Loveless said some “really big, beautiful rams” have also been found dead in the last couple of weeks. Luckily, the disease has not spread to bighorn sheep that live in nearby Yellowstone National Park.

“That’s amazing, because we know that they mix,” Loveless said.

The bighorn sheep are native to the area. Evidence has even been found in the surrounding canyons of ancient traps and blinds used by hunters in the region thousands of years ago.

As far as Loveless knows, this is the first time the Gardiner-area sheep have been infected and died. The bacteria that leads to the death of bighorns is common in domestic sheep and goats. Close contact between the animals can lead to infection in bighorn sheep. Two landowners in the area raise domestic sheep.

Loveless is hopeful that the bighorn sheep will rebound like a nearby group. A herd near Point of Rocks suffered a die-off of about 20 animals, with the group dwindling to 30 sheep, two years ago. That herd has now rebounded to about 50.

“So far, it seems like their lamb numbers are pretty good,” Loveless said. “That could potentially happen in the Cinnabar and Tom Miner herds.”

A herd of bighorn sheep that inhabits a portion of the Tendoy Mountains, in southwestern Montana near Lima, hasn’t fared so well. After suffering a die-off from pneumonia, the herd has been unable to rebound despite several supplemental transplants by FWP from other bighorn herds.

On Thursday the Fish and Wildlife Commission authorized the department to proceed with actions to possibly eliminate the remaining 50 bighorns in the Tendoy herd so it could be repopulated with disease-free bighorn sheep. Before that can happen, an environmental assessment will be completed.

FWP’s initial proposal is to remove all of the bighorns with an open hunting season, which could take two years, predicted John Vore, wildlife management section chief. In expectation of that, the commission approved not issuing the usual one either-sex bighorn sheep tag for the area and to reconfigure the hunting district to exclude a bighorn herd that migrates back and forth to Idaho.

Commissioner Dan Vermillion, of Livingston, praised the department for “taking this bold step” after coming under fire for not moving fast enough to restore bighorn sheep to more of their historic range, as called for under the state’s bighorn sheep management plan.

Members of the public were more cautious.

Glenn Hockett, volunteer president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, suggested the department pursue a conservation easement with the nearby landowner who raises sheep to preclude their grazing.

Retired wildlife biologist Jim Bailey, of the GWA, questioned FWP’s plan, saying that removing bighorns resistant to disease is a bad idea.




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Rich Landers
Rich Landers joined The Spokesman-Review in 1977. He is the Outdoors editor for the Sports Department writing and photographing stories about hiking, hunting, fishing, boating, conservation, nature and wildlife and related topics.

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