HELENA - About 90 percent of the wild bighorn sheep in the Elkhorn Mountains have died of pneumonia in what wildlife officials called an "all-age die-off."
Tom Carlsen, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said that had the die-off not occurred, the herd should have numbered about 220. Only 19 bighorn sheep were found alive last week.
"I'm not aware of any place in Montana where we've had a die-off of this magnitude," Carlsen said. "We lost over 90 percent of the herd."
The die-off was suspected in January after 12 sheep were found dead. Tests confirmed that they had pneumonia, which bighorn sheep can catch through nose-to-nose contact with domestic sheep or goats. The domesticated animals are immune to the disease, which is fatal for wild bighorns. Carlsen said there was some "mixing" of the bighorns with at least one domestic herd of sheep, and possibly with a herd of goats.
FWP began transplanting the sheep in 1996 in hopes of establishing a herd. The agency eventually brought in 75 sheep, and the herd had grown to more than 200. The population was strong enough in 2002 that FWP began issuing about a dozen annual bighorn sheep hunting licenses. But only 35 sheep were counted during an aerial survey in January.
Carlsen said he didn't know if additional bighorn sheep would be brought in to try to shore up the current population, and he was doubtful that the 19 bighorns would be able to grow the size of the herd on their own.
Montana has an estimated 5,820 bighorn sheep in 48 distinct populations. The state is working on a conservation strategy to increase those numbers and to outline future management plans.
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