Wildlife officials in Montana remain concerned about an ongoing pneumonia outbreak among bighorn sheep near the northern boundary of Yellowstone National Park, and have canceled the lone permit that would have been issued for a fall sheep hunt in the area.
The move came after wildlife biologists conducted an aerial survey Sunday of the area near Gardiner, Mont., just outside Yellowstone’s North Gate.
After counting 89 healthy sheep last year, Sunday’s count yielded 55 sheep, as well as another dead animal and a number of sick ones, according to a statement released Monday by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
So far, at least 34 sheep from the herd have died from the pneumonia outbreak that began late last year, marking a loss of nearly 40 percent of the herd in the Gardiner and Cinnabar areas.
“The disease event is not over yet,” said Karen Loveless, a Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife biologist in Livingston.
Wildlife officials in December said it was impossible to detect the exact source of the outbreak. But wild bighorn sheep can be highly susceptible to respiratory illnesses transmitted by healthy domestic sheep who are resistant to the diseases. State wildlife officials said in December that wild and domestic sheep had been present in the same general areas at that time.
Game agencies can’t force private landowners to relocate domestic sheep, and there’s no foolproof method for guaranteeing separation on public grazing lands, especially when young rams wander off during the seasonal rut.
Wildlife biologists will sometimes capture or kill bighorn sheep known to have been in contact with domestic sheep or goats in an effort to prevent the likely spread of disease.
Montana wildlife commissioners voted unanimously during a Monday conference call to close the 2015 bighorn sheep season in hunting district 305 around Gardiner. The move was taken to protect the herd and to preclude hunters from applying for the hunting district’s lone permit, which would have been made available for a September hunt.
Commission Chair Dan Vermillion said the herd is important to hunters and others who have become accustomed to watching the animals’ mating rituals near Yellowstone National Park during late November’s bighorn sheep rutting season.
About 10 people had already applied online for the license. Applicants will be offered the opportunity to apply elsewhere or be given a refund, game officials said. Last year, about 100 hunters applied for the lone district 305 license.
Yellowstone Park is home to about a dozen interbreeding bands of bighorn sheep who roam the steep terrain of the upper Yellowstone River drainage, according to the park’s “Resources and Issues Handbook.”
Centered around Mount Everts, the bighorn sheep population in Yellowstone fluctuates from 100-400 animals, with the most recent count in 2012 showing 378 sheep.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].