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What's Killing Bighorn Sheep?

What's Killing Bighorn Sheep?

By Elizabeth Wynne Johnson

PULLMAN, WA 2006-08-29 There's a mystique to bighorn sheep. They're nimble enough to keep their footing on rocky slopes. And yet the image of rams clashing their mighty curved horns makes them the embodiment of raw power. But tough as they are, bighorn sheep are no match for an epidemic of disease. Now northwest states are joining forces to try and save the animals. Correspondent Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports from Hell's Canyon.


Frances Cassirer stakes out her position on the eastern edge of Washington state. The only thing between her and a wall of rugged cliffs in Idaho is the Snake River. The Idaho Fish and Game biologist is peering through a scope at a handful of bighorn sheep. It's a nice place to raise lambs, because nothing else can get around up there.

Frances Cassirer: "I do get really familiar with the different sheep and start being concerned about certain individuals and whether they have they lambs or not. Of course as a scientist, you try to maintain some distance. But when you're out here watching them, you can't help but get involved."

Something is killing off bighorn sheep in the Northwest at an alarming but erratic rate. Some years are OK. Then comes a year when every single lamb born to a population like the one in Idaho dies within two weeks.

Down the road we come to a different cluster, this one in Washington.

Frances Cassirer: "You have six adult ewes here... and one lamb. That's a clue that there's a problem."

A month ago, every one of these sheep most likely had a lamb. Now the only one left is clearly in trouble.

Frances Cassirer: "You can see the lamb -- his ears are kind of pointed backwards, he's got a runny nose, so he's really not looking very good."

The culprit is bacterial pneumonia. Researchers have known that for years. What they can't figure out is what makes common bacteria so lethal and the sheep so susceptible.

Frances Cassirer: "I got sick of picking up dead lambs. So that's part of the impetus for this next phase, which was to try to make some progress on solving the problem and not having to watch them die each year."

Cassirer is part of a rare multi-state effort to head off the pneumonia epidemic that's decimating bighorn sheep. The state wildlife agencies of Idaho, Washington and Oregon, the US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, and the Nez Perce tribe are all in on it.

(Sound of door opening.)

Lambs who succumb to the disease end up here.

Tom Besser: "We're in the Washington animal disease diagnostic lab in the path amphitheater which is adjacent to the necropsy room..." (Sound fades under.)

Tom Besser is a microbiologist at Washington State University in Pullman. For the first time this year, researchers are gathering up sick lambs in the wild and bringing them here before they die.

Tom Besser: "You were down in those canyons. You saw how hot it gets. And you can imagine, it doesn't take very long for a dead animal in that kind of condition to deteriorate. They can deteriorate pretty bad. And you lose information on those."

The goal is to catch the disease at an earlier stage in hopes of figuring out the underlying cause -- or causes. The answers may still be years away.

All this effort is expensive. But why invest so much in a species that isn't even technically "endangered"?

Frances Cassirer says the researchers do it because they can.

Frances Cassirer: "If bighorn sheep weren't so popular with hunters and the states didn't have special tags they could auction off this wouldn't be happening, because that's a major source of funding."

In fact, Hell's Canyon is where hunters bag the biggest trophy rams. The record price paid for a bighorn tag at auction is over three hundred thousand dollars. That's money that goes directly to conservation. So in the end, the bighorn sheep's undeniable allure may be the true, if unscientific, key to its survival.

© Copyright 2006, Boise State Radio
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