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Bighorn sheep in B.C. dying from domestic sheep pneumonia

February 5, 2016 CBC News

A bighorn sheep herd in B.C.'s interior is in trouble after coming into contact with domestic sheep and the contagious disease they carry.

The Chasm herd near Clinton, B.C. has lost more than two-thirds of its members since 2013, with the population decreasing from 110 to 28 members at last count. Scientists say bighorn sheep are dying from a particular type of pneumonia that domestic sheep are immune to but that wild sheep are not.

Separating the two species is key to the survival of bighorn sheep, an animal that is featured in B.C.'s coat of arms. "If we keep the two species separated, that's our ultimate goal. If we can achieve that, we'll have healthy wild sheep and healthy domestic sheep farms," said Chris Barker, director of the Wild Sheep Society of B.C.

A bighorn sheep can die within five days after coming into contact with a domestic sheep carrying this particular pneumonia bacteria, according to Barker. Building barriers between domestic and bighorn sheep may be the most effective way of keeping the wild populations safe, says Jesse Zeeman with the B.C. Wildlife Federation.

But the pneumonia bacteria is airborne, which means farmers will have to build a dual fence, about 30 feet apart, to prevent the disease from traveling herd to herd. If even one farmer doesn't build a fence, that could spell disaster for the already fragile bighorn population.

Wild sheep that do come into contact with domestic sheep have to be killed to protect the rest of the population. "We have a policy in place that if wild sheep have contact with domestic sheep, then you phone a conservation officer," said Barker. "The conservation officer will go out and take that animal out of the equation so that it doesn't go back and actually endanger the healthy sheep population." The town of Clinton, B.C. is holding a public meeting on Sunday to raise awareness about the issue.

Comment: We used to see a lot of bighorn sheep around Vaseux Lake, but not in recent years, although last summer we spotted a small group near Ashcroft. It's very troubling to hear of the crashing populations. Sadly, bighorns are highly susceptible to a variety of bacteria that cause pneumonia in domestic sheep.

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