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BC government urged to stop spread of deadly diseases to wild bighorns

Feb 15. 16

B.C.’s wild bighorn sheep are facing a deadly threat from a pneumonia-causing bacterial disease spread by domestic sheep.

The Chasm herd of California bighorns north of Clinton has declined to just 28 animals from more than 110 since the fall of 2013, and the fear is that other wild populations across southern B.C., including those in the Okanagan, East Kootenays, and Thompson River drainage areas, could face a similar fate.

“If we want to see wild sheep on the landscape we need to separate the two,” Jesse Zeman, a program manager with the B.C. Wildlife Federation, said.

Zeman said that of the live bighorns captured, radio-collared, and tested after the massive die-off in Chasm, two out of four tested positive for antibodies related to pathogens carried by domestic sheep.

Provincial wildlife veterinarian Helen Schwantje said government staff shot a ram about two weeks ago in the Chasm herd after it tested positive for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, and had pneumonia without showing symptoms.

“That’s the first time we were able to do that in B.C.,” she said. “It’s interesting, but also concerning, because rams don’t just stay in one place. They move around a lot.”

Mike Schroeder, director of the Wild Sheep Society of B.C., noted that bighorns have been observed alongside domestic sheep in the Chasm area. The Chasm herd is also in the heart of sheep country, he noted, “close enough to adjacent wild herds that the potential for a widespread outbreak is huge. We’re talking hundreds and hundreds of wild sheep.”

In 1999-2000, domestic sheep were also blamed for killing about 65 per cent of bighorn sheep in the South Okanagan. Disease transmission can be nose-to-nose or airborne.

Foreign trophy hunters pay up to $20,000, or more, to shoot a wild bighorn in B.C. Hunting fees collected through the Habitat Conservation Trust Foundation fund a coordinator for a “sheep separation program” that seeks solutions in individual cases in addition to other initiatives by hunting organizations.

Options to date have included erecting fences and buying the sheep of willing farmers. Other touted solutions include exclusion zones for domestic sheep in critical wildlife areas, as well as a special consumer label for compliant farmers.

While the majority of sheep producers are responsible and want to farm in a way that supports wild flocks, the “one per cent” who don’t can represent a “huge risk” to wild sheep populations, Zeman said.

“If we have even one domestic sheep with the bacteria in bighorn range it puts the entire wild population at risk. That’s the challenge.”

He said a province-wide program is needed to address the problem, noting: “There is no supporting policy or legislation at this time.”

Schwantje said that a traditional cattle ranch near the park brought in sheep more recently.

“We knew there was a significant risk there,” she said, saying efforts to mitigate a solution with the owner failed. “It’s been a big concern of ours.”

Domestic sheep bred over innumerable generations in dense concentrations have developed a level of immunity to certain pathogens, whereas wild flocks can remain highly vulnerable. Females who survive the pneumonia can pass it on to their babies, making it difficult to rebuild wild herds.

The Ministry of Agriculture has been looking at options to deal with the issue. Blair Phelps, ministry spokesman, said the province is committed to sustainable wildlife and that staff are “exploring a framework to protect wild sheep from disease exposure.”

“We don’t have any ability to do anything on private land,” Schwantje said. “If Joe wants to raise sheep, there is nothing that stops him from doing that.”

Roma Tingle, president of the B.C. Sheep Federation which represents sheep and wool farmers, could not be reached for comment.

In northern B.C., wild Dall and Stone thinhorn sheep are also at risk. The potential for wild and domestic populations to intermingle is greater due to fewer human barriers between them, Zeman added. The province estimates there are 6,600 bighorns, including Rocky Mountain bighorns, and 13,500 thinhorn sheep in B.C.

A 2014 report by the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria for the B.C. Wildlife Federation noted that 19th-century European settlement caused a dramatic decline in North America’s bighorn populations.

In the U.S., bighorn populations declined from an estimated 1.5 to two million to less than 20,000 by 1960 due to unregulated hunting, habitat loss, disease, and competition for forage with livestock. Intensive recovery efforts in the U.S. increased the bighorn sheep population to an estimated 57,000 in 2012, the report noted.

California bighorns from B.C., including those in the Chilcotin, have proven instrumental in helping to restock wild herds in the U.S. west.

Read the original story here

Top photo: Robert McCaw

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