Long-running challenges with disease in wild and domestic sheep brought both wildlife managers and the livestock industry together in Helena for a first-of-its-kind symposium.

Researchers, game managers, advocates and ranchers met Thursday for the first of two days of presentations on sheep disease issues.

Diseases transmitted between wild and domestic sheep have been well-publicized, particularly in light of large die-offs of wild herds that have left many populations unable to rebound. Commingling between bighorns and their domestic cousins is such a concern that state policy dictates the lethal removal of wild specimens that come in contact with domestic sheep.

Symposium discussions would not delve into management policies but focus on education and learning from each other, said meeting leader John Vore with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Montana Woolgrowers Association President Dave McEwen detailed the history of domestic sheep in the state. From the mid-1800s flocks grew to a high of about 3.5 million in 1900. While Montana raises far fewer sheep today, research into genetics and nutrition has made Montana sheep among the finest meat and wool available.

“We grow the finest feeder lambs in the nation … and the industry has grown because of research,” he said. “These folks invested as producers and these people have continued to give us the information to make our industry as viable as it is.”

Sheep producers face a variety of challenges, particularly in Montana with environmental extremes and other stresses that make them susceptible to diseases including internal parasites and pneumonia.

Pneumonia has been perhaps the most widely identified disease hitting bighorns as well.

“Pneumonia can kill us,” McEwen said. “We don’t make the paper because we had a 20 or 30 percent die-off in somebody’s herd. In fact you probably won’t even hear about it because it’s not something someone wants to say or wants the neighbors to know. But we know what causes that, we know the triggers that cause it and we manage for it so it’s a manageable issue rather than a crisis issue.”

McEwen took issue with media reports that include false statements, such as pneumonia only affecting wild sheep. Both sides would benefit from working together and getting the science on the table.

Montana offers more than 250 hunting licenses for bighorn sheep and also is the only state that allows unlimited licenses in a few districts, where anyone can buy a sheep tag and hunt on a quota system. Known for their prowess in the cliffs, sheep hunting can make for a challenging adventure.

“They’re one of the premier big game species to hunt,” Vore said. “Sheep hunters are a kind of breed unto themselves.”

But as tough as sheep are on a steep slope, their propensity for disease contraction makes them a challenging species to manage.

From lows in the 1940s, today Montana’s 5,700 bighorn sheep in more than 40 herds have largely been recovered through transplants, particularly in the 1960s and '70s, Vore told the symposium. While numbers were likely never as high as the current populations of deer in the hundreds of thousands or antelope at about 30,000, bighorn populations are still far below historic numbers.

Fluctuations in Montana’s overall sheep population also require some deeper analysis. The 5,700 of today compared to the 6,500 in 2007 shows a drop, but the difference is more pronounced in large die-offs in the Highlands, Rock Creek and Bitterroot, but offset by growth in the Missouri River Breaks herd.

A bighorn sheep management plan drafted in 2010 has also faced some difficulties to implement. While naturally connected populations are preferable, concern about spreading diseases has been a major limiting factor.

The state’s strategy calling for transplanting sheep for five new huntable herds has largely fizzled as habitat meeting the needed criteria is either occupied or too close to domestic flocks. Transplants aiming to bolster disease-carrying populations with healthy animals have also proved ineffective.

“Health has to be the first priority,” Vore said, adding that research and monitoring the health of Montana’s herds is ongoing.

In the Tendoys bighorn herd that has suffered disease-caused poor lamb recruitment, the state is taking a new strategy of totally eliminating the herd, mostly through hunting, and then transplanting healthy animals. About a dozen of the 40 sheep in the area still need to be removed before the transplant takes place, Vore said.

Pre-European settlement estimates of sheep populations in the West top 1.5 million, Kurt Alt with the Wild Sheep Foundation told the symposium. Today’s populations in the U.S. and Canada are about 85,000 and largely there because of restoration efforts, he said.

“Wildlife interests and agricultural interests fueled the restoration of wildlife together,” he said. With the concerns about wild and domestic sheep commingling on both private and public lands, both sides must come together, he added.

As a point of emphasis, Alt noted that fewer wild sheep now roam Montana than in 2010 when the state wrote its bighorn conservation strategy.

“If we’re serious about bringing solutions to these issues between our constituency groups, just focusing on public land ain’t going to cut it in Montana. We have to work with each other across the landscape,” Alt said.

Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin

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