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Disease forces DWR to kill bighorn sheep

Published March 9, 2010 7:18 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2010, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Dutch John The Utah Division of Wildlife Resource has paid big bucks in recent years to import Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep into the mountains near Flaming Gorge Reservoir.

Now the agency is killing them.

Wildlife biologists are shooting the entire bighorn sheep population on Goslin Mountain in the state's northeastern corner in an effort to stop a fatal and contagious disease from spreading to other nearby wild herds.

Twenty-five Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep from the Goslin Mountain herd have been shot by biologists in the steep canyon country north of the Green River and east of Dutch John in the past month. Many more have died from bacterial pneumonia, a malady that is striking a severe blow to bighorn herds in Montana, Nevada and Washington.

"Some states let the disease take its course when the herd is isolated, but we have documented cases of rams from the Goslin herd contacting other sheep and we don't want to risk infecting nearby herds and having a much larger die-off," said Leslie McFarlane, the wildlife disease specialist for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR).

The decision to wipe out the Goslin herd was tough because the sheep had been involved in a large and costly re-introduction effort involving 76 animals captured in two transplants from Montana in 2004 and 2007.

Domestic sheep, which have built up a resistance to the sickness, can transmit pneumonia to bighorn. But McFarlane does not think that was the case with the Goslin herd.

The wild sheep involved in the second transplant from Montana came from a herd which is also currently experiencing an outbreak of pneumonia. It is possible the malady lay dormant within the herd and was released when an environmental trigger was pulled.

Ryan Foutz, Utah director of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep (FNAWS), helped organize the transplants. He said the cost was about $600 per animal for the 2004 effort and about $800 per animal for the 2007 move. About $100,000 was spent in the two moves.

"It's just too bad," Foutz said about the Goslin outbreak. "A lot of money, time and effort was invested in an effort to try and build up the bighorn population, and not just for sportsman's opportunities. A lot of people have really enjoyed seeing the wild sheep in the area."

Money from Utah's highest-bid conservation hunting permit program paid for the transplants, with some help from FNAWS for logistical costs. The conservation permit to hunt Rocky Mountain bighorn anywhere in the state this fall recently sold for $89,000. The first hunting permit for the Goslin herd was scheduled for this fall.

Darren Bowcutt, a fishing guide for Western Rivers Flyfisher heard a shot while floating the Green River last week. He was sad to hear the herd was being eliminated.

"I'm going to miss seeing those guys," he said.

Anglers fishing the Green River in mid-February stumbled across a dead bighorn ram near the Little Hole Trail, which runs for 7 miles from Flaming Gorge Dam to the Little Hole boat ramps on the river, and reported it to state officials.

Wildlife biologist Lowell Marthe and conservation officer Jack Lytle investigated and found the ram that had been dead for several days.

"We cut it open and found signs of pneumonia," Marthe said. "That clued us in and we started looking for other animals."

Once located, Marthe watched the animals for any signs of coughing, a sure sign of pneumonia. He found many of the animals in multiple groups of the Goslin herd had contracted the cough.

Samples from six of the bighorn were sent to a lab and confirmed the pneumonia fears. Biologists have been carefully watching sheep in the Bare Top, Carter Creek and Sheep Creek herds and have not witnessed any signs of illness through Monday.

Foutz said Montana has killed more than 200 bighorn in effort to stop the spread of the pneumonia.

Finding the remaining members of the Goslin herd - estimated between 40 and 60 animals before the outbreak - in the steep canyons along the Green River has proven difficult. Things don't get any easier for Marthe after they are located.

"It sucks," he said. "[Shooting them] is not what we want to be doing. We are trying to increase numbers and something like this happens. We will be starting from scratch again."

Marthe said the heads of some of the rams are collected for research and educational programs, but that the bodies are left to the coyotes and cougars.

Foutz said his group has already arranged for more bighorn to come to Utah from Montana this year, but he thinks it makes sense to wait before releasing any on Goslin mountain again.

"We need to look for the cause and I'm not sure it can be identified," Foutz said. "The DWR needs to look long and hard for that source and make sure there are no animals in the area showing any symptoms. We would like to see sheep there again, but we don't want to have a repeat if we can avoid it."

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