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Pneumonia Die-Off Hits Montana Bighorn Sheep

January 24, 2008.

A few weeks ago, a pneumonia outbreak struck sheep in Colorado. Montana is now reporting a similar die-off.

From Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks:

State wildlife officials said today that a number of bighorn sheep in the Elkhorn Mountains south of Helena have died from pneumonia over the past few weeks.

The nearly always-fatal respiratory disease was first suspected in the herd when a traveler reported sick bighorn sheep on the Indian Creek Road near Townsend on Jan. 8.

"All indications suggested pneumonia," said Tom Carlsen, a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "We picked up about six carcasses so far. The FWP lab in Bozeman confirmed today that the sheep had pneumonia."

The Elkhorn bighorn sheep herd was established in 1996 when 25 sheep were transplanted there from Rock Creek near Phillipsburg. Since then, the number of bighorn sheep counted in the Elkhorn Mountains has steadily increased to more than 200.   An aerial survey conducted Jan. 16 found only 35 bighorn sheep.

Carlson said FWP will conduct another aerial survey near the end of March.   "The population objective for sheep in the Elkhorns is 250," Carlsen said. "Our aerial survey in March will tell us how severe the die-off was."  

Most of the bighorn sheep in the Elkhorns use habitats near their release sites in the southeast portion of mountain range.   Popular areas for viewing bighorn sheep include lower portions of the Crow and Indian creek drainages.  

Bighorn sheep hunting opportunities have been offered in the Elkhorn Mountains’ hunting district 380 since 2002. Last year, four hunters received a special license to hunt bighorn rams, and eight others received licenses to hunt ewes.

The source or catalyst of the pneumonia outbreak is unknown. "Die-offs of this nature are not uncommon," Carlsen said. "Sometimes they’re associated with contacts with domestic sheep and sometimes they’re associated with a number of different stress factors that will trigger pneumonia."

Similar bighorn sheep die-offs have occurred in southwest Montana in the Tendoy Mountains in 1993, Highland Mountains in 1995, and in the Sleeping Giant area in 2001.

Carlsen said additional laboratory tests may isolate a specific strain of bacteria, viral pneumonias, or other causes involved in the die-off. Once bighorns contract pneumonia, however, they typically die within a few days.   There are no known vaccines to prevent pneumonia in wild sheep.

Hikers, cross-country skiers, snowmobile riders, and other recreationists are reminded that it is illegal to possess a bighorn sheep head picked up in the wild. Anyone who sees groups of live sheep, or who finds dead or sick sheep, in the Elkhorn Mountains is asked to call FWP in Townsend at 406-266-3367.

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