Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials report that pneumonia continues to persist in the Anaconda bighorn sheep population. The usually fatal respiratory disease was first detected in the herd on Aug. 20.
FWP spent the rest of August and all of September monitoring the Lost Creek herd and killing diseased sheep, in an effort to protect healthy animals from exposure.
"Some of our helicopter surveys in mid-September gave us hope that we might have killed enough sick sheep to get ahead of the disease, but as the weeks continue we're still observing more symptomatic sheep and seeing some advanced cases of pneumonia in the samples we collect," said Ray Vinkey, FWP wildlife biologist. "We're also seeing pockets of healthy sheep, which is telling us that there is still some potential to keep the disease from reaching all the sheep, so our efforts aren't over yet."
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There are no known vaccines to prevent pneumonia in wild sheep, or medications that can be practically applied to prevent the death of sick animals. Instead, potential relief lies in protecting healthy animals from exposure.
FWP crews now have plans to mobilize efforts to intensively monitor the Lost Creek bighorns through the fall season and to continue killing sheep exhibiting symptoms of the disease.
That means that big-game hunters and others can expect to see occasional helicopters monitoring sheep in Lost Creek and West Valley and Blue-Eyed Nellie and Garrity Mountain Wildlife Management Areas this fall.
"We're also asking hunters and others that plan to cover a lot of ground in these areas over the next few months to give us a call with their reports," Vinkey said. "All of these public observations are important to us as we work to get a complete picture of the spread of the disease and condition of the animals."
Vinkey said that 12 hunters drew licenses to hunt bighorn rams in Hunting District 213 this fall, and their hunt will continue.
"We have enough rams to sustain the population and that's a good thing for ram hunters," said Mike Thompson, FWP regional wildlife manager. "Many hunters never draw a ram license, and most who do may never get another chance. Right now, it looks like we can manage the disease along with ram hunting, and still have enough rams left over for some to survive a full blown pneumonia outbreak."
Another 30 hunters drew ewe licenses and were given a chance at a license refund or to start the hunting season knowing that an early season closure was a possibility. Hunters that opted to start the season had a few weeks in the field, and then FWP made the decision to close the ewe season Sept. 24 after continuing to detect more diseased sheep.
Thompson said the closure was necessary because ewes are essential to the recovery of the population in the event that a large die-off occurs later this fall and winter.
FWP cautions sheep hunters across western Montana to cook harvested sheep meat well and contact FWP with any questions about the suitability of the meat for consumption. There have been no known cases of humans or pets contracting pneumonia from wild sheep, but FWP cautions anyone who finds dead or sick bighorn sheep to leave the animal alone. FWP also encourages the public to immediately report any observations of sheep exhibiting symptoms of an illness or strange behavior.
For more information or to make a report, call FWP in Missoula at 542-5500.