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FWP delays bighorn sheep reintroduction north of Sula

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East Fork bighorn sheep

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks lab supervisor Neal Anderson and wildlife veterinarian Jennifer Ramsey take blood samples from a bighorn sheep captured in the East Fork of the Bitterroot Valley recently.

SULA - An outbreak of pneumonia in the Skalkaho area and some wary sheep in the East Fork have caused Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks to push back a planned reintroduction of bighorns into a drainage north of Sula.

"We've decided it's not prudent to bring sheep into the Warm Springs drainage right now," said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Bitterroot-based biologist Craig Jourdonnais. "Right now, there are just too many things we don't know."

So far this fall, six bighorns from the Skalkaho herd have been discovered dead.

While biologists can't confirm that all died as a result of pneumonia, there have been numerous reports that people have seen bighorns in the area coughing or showing other symptoms of being ill.

So far, Jourdonnais said the illness has manifested itself at a relatively low level and the hope is it will stay that way.

"We haven't hit winter or other stresses that typically come later in the season, such as the rut," he said.

During the rut, bighorn rams start to move and there is quite a lot of nose-to-nose contact between animals, which is perfect for spreading disease.

"While the whole behavioral thing during the rut is fascinating to watch, it is the Achilles heal in the disease issue in bighorns," Jourdonnais said.

The state had been considering moving bighorn sheep from a source herd - most likely the Upper Madison or Wild Horse Island - into Warm Springs Creek as early as this winter.

"It's a huge drainage with some great sheep habitat," Jourdonnais said. "For whatever reason, there hasn't been an established sheep population there."

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Before that could happen, Jourdonnais and other FWP researchers were required to take a hard look at the health of surrounding bighorn herds, which include sheep in the Skalkaho and East Fork areas.

Recently, a trio of researchers attempted to live capture a half dozen or more of the normally docile wild sheep in the East Fork to see how they were faring, following a relatively large pneumonia outbreak a couple years back.

The bighorns did not cooperate.

"For whatever reason, they were very uncooperative," Jourdonnais said. "That was kind of odd. There are usually sheep along the road and they are often forgiving to human presence."

On the day the researchers attempted to dart a few, the sheep kept their distance.

They managed to dart one.

"We will come back again and try this winter with maybe a different capture method," Jourdonnais said.

FWP wildlife lab supervisor Neil Anderson said the hope is the samples they obtain will provide some insight into the reasons why some bighorn sheep herds struggle to recover after a pneumonia outbreak.

"In past declines where we've had a major die-off, there have been a lot of populations that don't seem to recover," Anderson said. "In some cases, there is very poor lamb recruitment and the herds just stagnate."

The Highland herd near Anaconda is a good example.

Once considered one of the best herds for trophy rams in the country, that herd has never fully recovered since a major die-off in the mid-1990s.

Capturing and testing bighorn sheep in places like the East Fork may help researchers unlock some of the mysteries on why that occurs.

"There has not been a whole lot of work of going back into a population following a die-off and monitoring it for different types of pathogens," Anderson said.

This year in the East Fork, lamb production appeared to be off to a good start early in the season, but then Jourdonnais came across some pockets of sheep where lamb numbers were way down.

"At this point, it's hard to know exactly what's going on there," he said.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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