Wildlife managers seek break in fight against bighorn pneumonia

Published: Jan. 16, 2019 at 6:35 PM CST
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Game officials in Rapid City are helping efforts to solve the riddle of a nasty -- and often fatal -- illness plaguing bighorn sheep throughout the west.

And it's due in part to the accessibility of the animals.

Bighorn sheep face a stubborn, invisible foe that can wipe out as much as 90 percent of a herd. Its a pneumonia thought to infect them through domesticated sheep and goats that carry the bacterium but don't fall ill.

Two herds that live in and around Rapid City stand out among bighorns in the country as they are readily accessible to managers, unlike most herds that are tucked away in high mountains.

"We're pretty certain that we've got the majority of the sheep (in our near-town herds) marked," said state Game, Fish & Parks wildlife biologist Mark Peterson.

And that means managers can gather data on the animals that can be harder to obtain elsewhere. When we went out with game officials instead of looking for just any sheep to corral, we were looking for a specific female.

Peterson found the ewe and his colleague Melinda Nelson shot her with a tranquilizing dart.

And then Nelson grabbed a nasal swab to take samples for a lab in Washington state to see if the ewe is infected.

Managers test the sheep each year. It's the second positive test that triggers intervention. This ewe had already had one positive test.

"If she tests positive again we will capture her and take her to Brookings," said Peterson.

In Brookings, South Dakota State University researchers are digging for a cure -- or a vaccine -- for the pneumonia that could change sheep management beyond the state's borders.

"It could be beneficial for researchers across the United States that have sheep," said Peterson.

Back in the field, the ewe's day wasn't over yet. Next came another drug that counteracts the tranquilizer.

Peterson and Neslon kept an eye on her to make sure she was OK and back with her herd, which was satisfying. And even more satisfying was the knowledge that their work could help the herd -- or even an entire species.

"(The pneumonia) is a very pressing issue in wildlife management right now so it's good to be involved in some of the cutting edge research that's going on," said Peterson.

There are six sheep herds in the Black Hills and Badlands with an estimated total population of 565 sheep.

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