Keeping bighorns disease free

A bighorn sheep ram guards his prospective mates along the Grande Ronde River near Heller Bar in this file photo. Several agencies will hold a meeting at Asotin Tuesday to educate domestic sheep and goat owners about the dangers their animals can pose to wild sheep.

Officials from several wildlife and land management agencies and Washington State University will play host to a meeting Tuesday in Asotin on the dangers domestic sheep and goats pose to wild bighorn sheep in the Hells Canyon region.

The 6 p.m. meeting in Floch Hall at the Asotin County Fairgrounds will feature speakers from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Asotin County Conservation District and Washington State University. They will cover the potential of disease transmission from domestic sheep and goats to bighorns when the animals come in contact with one another, and steps that can be taken to keep both wild and domestic animals healthy.

The domestic animals can carry the M.ovi bacteria that causes pneumonia in wild sheep. Wildlife biologists have documented several die-offs of wild sheep after coming in contact with domestic sheep and goats in the region and throughout the western United States. When a herd is infected, the disease can cause mass die-offs or persistent mortality of lambs.

The greater Hells Canyon area in Idaho, Washington and Oregon once supported an estimated population of about 10,000 bighorn sheep. But the animals were hammered by a combination of overhunting, habitat degradation and disease from domestic animals. There are now about 1,000 wild sheep in the region.

Those who attend the meeting will learn voluntary strategies to keep domestic and wild sheep separated, how domestic herds can be tested for the disease, and how livestock owners can help wildlife managers in preventing contact between the two species and resulting outbreaks of the disease.

Jennifer Zipse of the Asotin County Conservation District said the agencies are organizing an outreach program that includes testing domestic animals so people can learn if their animals carry bacteria that causes the disease.

“We will be discussing how to better the health of domestic sheep and how their health affects the bighorns,” Zipse said. “We are hoping we can test as many domestic sheep and goats within the Hells Canyon corridor as possible.”

Tom Besser, a WSU professor and expert on the disease, will be the keynote speaker.

Barker may be contacted at or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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