It started innocently enough, with a handful of weak rams. That’s expected, almost normal, following the intensely violent, head-butting rut of bighorn sheep.
Early reports, in early December, indicated some rams in the Bonner herd appeared disoriented and lethargic. Then observers noticed other wild sheep coughing. That got the attention of western Montana wildlife managers who know that a sheep with respiratory distress may be only days away from death by pneumonia.
Within days, biologists and game wardens with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had killed 88 sheep from the Bonner herd, which ranges near the mouth of the Blackfoot River just west of Missoula.
It’s a heart-wrenching decision, to remove the very animals that state game agencies are tasked with conserving. But when wild sheep catch pneumonia, there is little chance of survival, but very high probability that others in the population will catch the respiratory disease, so removing sick sheep is one of the only options to contain pneumonia.
Bonner may have been the first, but it’s hardly been the only outbreak of disease in wild sheep this winter. Either by strange coincidence, or because of some vagary of weather, habitat stress or other variable, sheep are getting sick and dying across the West this winter.
Shortly after the Bonner outbreak, another celebrated Montana sheep herd, in the East Fork of the Bitterroot River south of Missoula, was ravaged by pneumonia. Seventy-seven sick sheep were removed from that herd. Then it was Washington State’s turn, when bands between Yakima and Ellensburg became infected, and game managers culled about 85 animals.
Utah and Nevada were next. In Nevada, bands in the Ruby Mountains and East Humboldt Range have been infected and half of the sheep in both herds have died. In northeastern Utah the Goslin herd is infected, with about half the sheep dying of pneumonia.
The latest news is the most astonishing. More than half the sheep in the legendary Rock Creek band west of Missoula, Montana have been killed. This is a unit that has produced more than 100 Boone & Crockett rams in the past 18 years.
Why this winter? Why such debilitating results? Not a single wildlife manager has a coherent idea. The best overview of the problem comes from Utah, where the Division of Wildlife Resources put out the background piece here.
What do you think? Why are sheep dying? And how long will it take to rebuild some of these remarkable big-game populations? Will it affect where you apply for this fall’s hunting permits?