Bighorn sheep are appearing along the Rock Creek roadside again, after a devastating outbreak of pneumonia threatened the herd's survival last winter.

"The pneumonia continued to kill bighorns in upper and lower Rock Creek in the months following the spring surveys," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife manager Mike Thompson. "So we really didn't know how many or how few might survive into the rut this fall."

The wild sheep started getting sick in January, and FWP wardens killed 19 in lower Rock Creek in an effort to limit the spread of the disease. Bands of sheep in the upper end of the drainage were left alone because the more open terrain offered little chance to keep healthy sheep isolated from infected ones.

In the past two Saturdays, FWP biologists have counted 57 and 59 bighorns, respectively, between five and nine miles up Rock Creek Road. However, almost no lambs were spotted.

Pneumonia outbreaks are typically followed by poor lamb survival in the next several years. A similar disease outbreak in the East Fork of the Bitterroot last winter is bucking that trend, however. Thompson said the difference was the Bitterroot sheep were in terrain where aggressive culling of sick animals appears to have kept them from infecting others.

Hunting opportunities have been eliminated for almost all bighorn sheep in the disease-hit areas. The lower Rock Creek area used to offer 10 ram tags and now has none, while the upper drainage dropped its two ewe tags. The Bitterroot area still offered two ram tags by special drawing this year, down from eight last year.

Bighorn breeding season begins in November. The sheep seen along Rock Creek Road lend hope that more might be surviving in less visible parts of the drainage, Thompson said.

"At least we know we have the nucleus of a herd to build on," he said. "I watched them for quite a while. You don't know for sure, but they're behaving like they're healthy. They sure are vigorous now, both those lambs. They're just bouncing like pogo sticks."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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