Five Bighorn Sheep in the Skalkaho region of west central Montana have contracted pneumonia, which is almost always fatal when manifested as a respiratory disease in the animal. Historically, the region has served as critical sheep habitat although it was not until 1972 that the animal was successfully reintroduced to the area. There is no known prevention, vaccine or medication capable of preventing death in the overwhelming majority of cases. An infected animal typically dies within a few weeks.
This most recent incident follows in the wake of this winter’s devastating outbreak in the Rocky Mountain West. Western Montana alone saw over 200 sheep die as a result of infection. Regionally speaking, the hardest hit populations were in the East Fork of the Bitterroot, Lower and Upper Rock Creek, and in the Bonner area. Officials in the region took an experimental and very aggressive approach to disease control with sheep kills in an effort to protect healthy animals from infected ones.
Seventeen sheep in Nevada, 26 in Utah, and 18 from Washington also died or were killed by wildlife officials as a result of the epidemic.
With this devastating run as a precedent, wildlife officials in the area have been particularly vigilant in their monitoring. Enter university wildlife student Chris Anderson, who was the first to report signs of sick sheep in the Skalkaho region on Aug. 8.
Following Anderson’s raising of the alarm, FWP Bitterroot-based Craig Jourdonnais began monitoring the regions population of roughly 128 animals. So far, four adult ewes and their lambs have exhibited signs or behavior suggestive of infection. These animals were shot and blood and tissue samples from five of them were taken for analysis in Bozeman.
“This week was the first time anyone observed sheep with pneumonia-type symptoms in the Skalkaho herd,” said Jourdonnais. “So far the disease doesn’t seem too widespread within the herd, but we’re keeping a close eye on it.”
Each year, the FWP awards tags to hunters on a very limited basis to control the number of hunters in various hunting districts throughout the state. License holders are allowed to take only one sheep from their designated district. The five successful applicants for tags in the Skalkaho district will be notified shortly, according the FWP, to discuss the current situation and possible assistance hunters could provide regarding animal documentation in the region.
“Right now we appear to still have a lot of healthy sheep, and we’re hopeful that we can remove the sick animals and stay on top of this,” said FWP Region 2 Wildlife Manager Mike Thompson in a press release.
Although there are no reported incidents involving the contraction of the disease in humans or pets, the FWP urges anyone who finds a sick or dead animal to keep a safe distance and report findings to officials.
To make a report or find out more, call the Missoula’s FWP-branch at 406-542-5500.