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Big horn die-off burns sheep growers

Sheep growers say they feel they've been unfairly blamed for the worst pneumonia die-off of wild bighorn sheep in North Dakota's 50-year program history.

Sheep growers say they feel they've been unfairly blamed for the worst pneumonia die-off of wild bighorn sheep in North Dakota's 50-year program history.

As of Sept. 30, a total of 23 prized bighorn sheep had died of pneumonia in the northern Badlands habitat, most from a new group brought in from the Northern Rockies of Alberta, Canada. The die-off started in early August and continues, though fatalities are very much slowing the past four weeks.

The Dickinson district Game and Fish biologist who works most closely with the bighorn program thinks the illness came from contact with a small, local flock of domestic sheep, because they are known carriers of the specific bacteria micro-plasma ovipneumonia found in the dead bighorns.

Big game biologist Brett Wiedmann continues to hold firm, though the state Game and Fish Department acknowledges now that the connection can't be made with 100 percent certainty.

"We can't say that with certainty because we don't have tests from the domestic sheep," says Jeb Williams, chief of the state wildlife division.

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The agency met with the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association and the Board of Animal Health recently. They decided that while there hasn't been much need to communicate in the past, there is now.

Williams says regional research finds the primary way to keep the wild ones healthy is to separate them from domestic sheep.

Brad Gilbertson of Sherwood, N.D., vice chairman of the sheep producers group, says he has questions about that.

He says the resident bighorns had been the same three miles from the domestic sheep for years and nothing happened.

"They were there in 2011, and no problem. They were there in 2012, and no problem. They were there in 2013, and no problem. Then in 2014, they bring in the bighorns from Alberta. Why did they live three miles apart in harmony and all of a sudden the bighorns from Alberta come in, and we have a die-off?" he says.

The sheep in question were given to a young girl as part of the association's "starter flock program." Gilbertson says the 15-year-old girl now believes she's responsible for the biggest die-off in history, and "I don't know if that's true."

The girl's family removed them immediately after the deaths were discovered and Game and Fish talked to them about the potential problem.

"I'm not going to say the domestic sheep had nothing to do with this. I don't have that science, but I expect Game and Fish to give me that same courtesy," he says.

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No witnesses

No one saw any interaction between the wild and domestic groups, and the radio collars provide location, but no traveling record.

That's part of North Dakota State Veterinarian Susan Keller's problem with pointing a finger so directly. The other is lack of science.

"We have no witnesses to any interaction. We have no indication that the domestic sheep were carrying the (bacteria)," she says. "We can't say it didn't happen, but there're no test results that proved it was in the domestic sheep."

She says the translocated animals were very likely stressed -- itself a severe health concern -- and among possibilities are that the resident bighorns were carrying the bacteria and it was transferred to the Alberta group, or the Alberta group was carriers and it was triggered by their own stress.

Keller says there's inherent risk in moving animals from one place to another into contact with existing populations.

"Maybe it's a bad idea to bring bighorn sheep in if they should not be commingled -- it's a two-edged sword, the risk and adding biodiversity in the population," she says. "In our state, I thought we had accepted that risk."

Keller says there's no question the micro-plasma ovipneumonia is a nasty bacteria. "We just can't say where it came from," she says.

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It's not known if more than 23 are dead; only those that are radio-collared can be pinpointed. Sixteen of the fatalities are from among two dozen bighorns that were translocated to the grasslands from the Northern Rockies of Alberta, Canada, early this year. All of the Alberta bighorns have collars.

The other seven fatalities are from the resident group and only about 20 percent are collared.

There had been about 200 bighorn sheep in that northern Badlands "hub" for the animals, in a western North Dakota population of about 350.

Nearly all of the fatalities were recorded between Aug. 5 and Sept. 9. Since then, only three more have been detected by the collars, which give off a "beep-beep-beep-beep-beep" signal when the animal is dead. Of the latest, two more were in the Alberta group, and one was in the resident group, Williams says.

The illness can wipe out 30 to 95 percent of a bighorn population and the agency can only wait and see what happens.

There is no vaccine for either wild or domestic sheep.

Domestic sheep production is a small piece of agricultural value in North Dakota and it continues to decline. There were 64,000 sheep on 661 farms in the state in 2012, compared with 88,000 sheep on 678 farms in 2007, according to the Census of Agriculture.

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