Death Valley


<strong>A Beast in the Garden:</strong> On January 26, the sky fell for hunters vying to hunt Rock Creek's legendary rams. That was the date biologists confirmed a pneumonia outbreak in the herd. The illness has a long history of killing off 80 percent or more of infected herds across the west.

Big Sky, Big Rams: Montana is God's country for trophy bighorn rams, home to nine of the top ten counties anywhere and having produced 486 Boone and Crockett records since 1990. That's 100 more records than every other U.S. state and Canadian province combined during the same period.
Valley of the Kings: Montana's top spot has long been Rock Creek in Granite County near Missoula. It has produced more Boone and Crockett rams than anywhere else on earth. In fact, if Granite County was a state unto itself, it'd be second only to Montana for trophy rams. Rock Creek held court again in 2009, but don't expect a repeat this year.
Beyond Help: An aerial count soon confirmed biologists' worst fears: half of the herd was already missing and presumed dead, and more than 40 percent of the survivors were showing signs of sickness. The state has since cancelled any hunting in the district for at least two years and possibly longer. It was Montana's third outbreak in as many months–all of them in top districts–and appeared to be the worst. In previous outbreaks, the state moved quickly to kill diseased sheep to try to cut off the spread, but in Rock Creek, wildlife managers decided too many animals were ill for a culling operation to do any good. Contact with domestic sheep likely played a role in all the die-offs as such encounters are usually a death sentence for bighorns, even when both species are healthy.
Amid the Loss, An Opportunity: In March, researchers from the University of Montana began taking samples from diseased sheep in an effort to identify the genes that are activated to fight the infection in sick sheep.
"They look awful": After Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Biologist Ray Vinkey spotted a group of 10 sheep while accompanying the researchers, he was saddened to see all in terrible shape and almost certainly sick. Bighorns die within weeks once they develop pneumonia. After examining them with binoculars, Vinkey witnessed what he knew he'd probably see, a sheep hacking and coughing, Vinkey grabbed his shotgun to put it down and allow researchers to get tissue and blood samples.
Skin and Bones: The ewe that Vinkey put down was clearly emaciated, its hipbones jutting out and very little muscle left on its frame. By this point Vinkey was all to accustomed to the task ahead: opening its ribcage to examine its lungs and other organs.
Harsh Reality: Sure enough, one of the sheep's lungs was filled with puss, troubling evidence of the miserable death that pneumonia provides to infected bighorns.
A Hope for a Cure, However Distant: Researchers hope that samples from sick sheep will allow them to pin-point the genes responsible for bighorn's frailty toward pneumonia. Most animals would have developed a resistance to after so many severe die-offs, but bighorns haven't appeared to acquire any immunity through the years. They also hold out some hope of engineering a resistance once they identify how pneumonia interacts with bighorns' DNA.
Looking toward the Future: Vinkey found the ewe's pancreas to be spotted from the strain of the illness. He has spent most of his professional life working with bighorns, and says it's been heartbreaking to watch such a world-class herd fight for its life. He stresses that anyone who spots a coughing sheep should report it immediately as early awareness of an outbreak holds the best hope for limiting it's severity. How quickly Rock Creek can recover will depend largely on how many newborn lambs can survive the spring without getting sick. Some herds are able to rebound quickly while others struggle for decades. If ever there was fertile ground for a sheep to bounce back, though, it's Rock Creek.

A pneumonia outbreak among Montana’s legendary Rock Creek Bighorn sheep has left the herd fighting for its life.