Pneumonia strikes Montana bighorn sheep

The entire herd in the Elkhorn Mountains near Helena might die. Once again the suspect is domestic sheep (this is according to the article below).

Pneumonia strikes bighorn sheep. By Eve Byron. Helena Independent Record.




  1. kt Avatar

    Has anyone ever estimated how many hundreds of thousands of bighorn sheep there could be in the Interior West if likely less than 100 large sheep operators were kicked off public lands? I have heard that in Idaho, there are only 17 public lands welfare sheep ranchers with > 500 domestic sheep.

  2. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    I don’t know whether anyone’s tried to do that; certainly wildlife agencies wouldn’t do it, since the results would not be conducive to subordinate relations with sheep ranchers!

    We do know that that as late as the fur trade days, early to mid 19th century, bighorns were spread extensively through the Rockies by the thousands, not to mention the Black Hills and the Badlands, all the way down to Mexico and across to California. (jBighorns are Pleistocene immigrants to North America, and spread widely throughout the broken mountain and hill country of the Wes. See James Clark’s The Great Arc of the Wild Sheep, which traces wild sheep populations through the mountains of North Africa through southern Asia, into Siberia, across Bering Straight into the North American mountain chains). Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper, which covers Russell’s time in the West as a free trapper from 1834 to 1843, refers often to seeing thousands of sheep at a time throughout the Greater Yellowstone, especially here in Wyoming’s Upper Wind River Valley, where I live.

    Sheep hunting, which is now considered to be the most physically demanding hunt in North America, primarily because of the terrain, was apparently pretty easy in Russell’s day. If a trapper wanted to eat sheep, he went up on a hill and shot one. I can well imagine how easy this would be to get among bighorns; I had the good fortune to spend three winters on sheep winter range (Whiskey Basin) to study bighorns, and after a brief introductory period, I could walk among and sit with bighorns to my heart’s content. I got to know them all.

    An entire Native culture centered itself upon sheep hunting (as the Plains cultures focused on the bison), the so-called Mountain Shoshone or Sheepeaters of the central Rockies, especially what is now Yellowstone. Russell refers to the high quality of their tanned skins, and the horn bow, made from the horns of bighorn males, was renowned as a work of art and of technological mastery; consequently, the Sheepeater horn bow was highly sought by the extensive Native trade networks.

    There was a remnant Mountain Shoshone population in Yellowstone when the Park was created, and they were forcibly moved to the Wind River Indian Reservation with their cousins the horse-riding, bison-eating Shoshone, now known as the Eastern Shoshone.

    I doubt it would be possible to reintroduce sheep everywhere they were found previously without considerable restoration of habitat, much of it damaged by livestock grazing. If the Rocky Mtn forests disappear as a consequence of climate and other factors, that might be of some benefit to bighorns, as they are definitely not a forest mammal and are hindered in their movement by forests.


  3. Buffaloed Avatar

    I was told in conversation once that bighorn sheep numbered around 5000 in the Lost River Range alone.

    Osborne Russell’s Journal of a Trapper is in the public domain now and you can read it in its entirety here:,M1

  4. jimbob Avatar

    I’ve commented on this many times here on this site–this has been a known problem for many years here in Arizona. Our Game and fish Dept. actually pointed out that disease passed from domestic sheep to bighorns is the biggest factor in herd reduction numbers for bighorns. However, lately the only factor ever publicised is that evil predators are responsible for a lack of bighorns. As Robert Hoskins points out the g&f folks are subservient to ranchers, thus they refuse to admit to these problems. By bringing up predators they can get their “constituent base” which is hunters all excited and up in arms so they can act like they are doing something. It is a crying shame that nobody is REALLY interested in solving the problem. They just look at it as another reason to get rid of lions!

  5. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Habitat, as it is with too many species, is the specific problem with bighorn sheep. With the Whiskey Mountain herd, the one I studied, soils and forage production on winter range are poor anyway, and with the drought, worse. The health of lambs is poor and their growth is limited–at the end of a year, they still look like lambs.

    Yet, local outfitters and hunters are determined to blame coyotes and cougars for problems with the herd. FNAWS has been sponsoring a coyote shoot, using Wildlife Services, but few coyotes have been taken. My experience from living on winter range is that coyotes have been focusing on mule deer and have been taking few bighorns. Same for cougars.

  6. jimbob Avatar

    You’re correct about the habitat loss being a big factor, but here in Arizona we still have some good unoccupied habitat. It is difficult to repopulate bighorn numbers. I just read the article about the county in Idaho requesting the removal of bighorns from an area so that a rancher may be accommodated. This is perverse! What I found extremely funny was in the same article the rancher denied the link between domestic sheep disease and loss of bighorns, but drew his own link and solved the problem himself—“stress from predators is what caused the bighorns to die” (!) Interesting that for hundreds of thousands of years bighorns were able to do very well with only predators to worry about. Their numbers have PLUMMETTED in the last 150+ years—the same amount of time we have been grazing their habitat with sheep. Logic, education, and predators: the enemies of the modern day rancher (sorry, I know not all ranchers are morons, but many of them still lump together)

  7. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    We’ve known since Adolph Murie’s famous wolf study in McKinley National Park that wild sheep can deal with the stress of predation. What they cannot deal with is the stress of diseases brought into their country by domestic sheep.

  8. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Bighorns are creatures of the moment. Once a wolf or other predator is out of sight they forget all about them.

    I spend a lot of time with bighorns. If you would like to see wolves attempting to catch some big rams and my comments, click on my name above to access my website.

  9. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    These are very fine photos. The bighorn at the beginning of the series is one fine ram. We don’t have them like that down here any more, not that I’ve seen. We’re lucky to find a full curl here at all, much less one with a curl like you photographed.

    That silver wolf looks like a cross-phase fox. Lovely.

    These photos do reflect one of the things that Murie first learned in his Alaska wolf study in the 30s and 40s; wolves that chase wild sheep from below soon figure out who’s faster. Wolves that learn to hunt from above are more successful in taking wild sheep.

    This looks like Andy Russell country. He wrote a fine book on wild sheep, Horns in the High Country. Do you know it?


  10. Brian Ertz Avatar

    it is similarly interesting that sheepman attribute stress to bighorn demise – and then prescribe stressful removal/relocation if not outright lethal elimination of bighorn.

    they’re also making an argument made in adjudication concerning Hells Canyon bighorn wagering that it is not a particular pneumonia alone, but may be a combination of pathogens which results in death – this to support their argument that FS’s decision to deny trailing of domestics was arbitrary and capricious. but even if you pre-suppose their (grey) argument concerning dynamic pathogens – which the extent to which they demonstrated alternative causation was in their submission of photographs with birds perched on bighorn noses and the promise of published literature later (which ended up taking zero bite out of the WAFWA recommendations – it simply demonstrated that some dead sheep have multiple diseases – in fact, i believe the author was involved in the development of the WAFWA recommendations ) – to compound the exposure by introducing filthy diseased domestics remains dangerous — which is even further compounded against the prescribed excessive interchange between herds should agencies persistently shuffle the deck by moving animals between herds/populations.

    the bottom line is that even the arguments that they make attempting to sidestep the implications of all of this are suggestive of the need to remove domestic sheep from federal public lands to protect bighorn. instead – we in Idaho are watching the political backlash of the proper enforcement of the law to that — the theme of the backlash is a push to purport that state’s have exclusive rights to manage wildlife – exclusive ownership. this is nowhere near true – and if these fools aren’t careful, they’re going to open up a very promising opportunity for an exercise of public influence over public land and wildlife that can be wielded to protect many species and much habitat.

  11. Brian Ertz Avatar

    those photographs are incredible Larry !

  12. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Technically, the law states that the States do not hold title in wildlife as a form of property, but that they are a common resource of all the people that the state “holds” and manages in trust for the people. This is the public trust; it is a common law doctrine. It is a valid concept that I think is little understood by conservationists. We should spend more time thinking about how to implement it to oppose the efforts of special interests to extend control over wildlife, particularly for commercial purposes.

  13. Brian Ertz Avatar

    i’m certainly not going to disagree with that. especially when it comes to preventing wolf slaughter as well as bighorn. The Woolgrowers in Idaho would disagree, as demonstrated by their fervent insistence that “wildlife is the property of the state of idaho” –

    this issue in idaho looks to be an attempt at localization aimed at avoiding the implications of compliance with federal environmental analysis regarding administration of the federal grazing allotments. that is – winmill upheld FS’s decision to boot the domestic sheep holding WAFWA in high regard ~ or at least its basis is not arbitrary and capricious. The turn-out failed (at least arguments rendered) on NFMA & NEPA.

    the state responds by drafting a working group which for the first time explicitly gives a role to ISDA – the meetings held in the basement of ISDA. i’m not sure how or whether this role would implicate the public trust doctrine regarding wildlife by poisoning the pill with alternative mandate ??? either way, the firewall is built – the state imposition of a death-zone for bighorn whereby if they cross the line, they get removed. speculation: this gives FS an attempted political boundary/obstruction to reference in Risk Assessments depressing the likelihood of an allotment unduly exposing bighorn to disease – (a dead bighorn won’t conduct disease is the mentality) thus turn-out of domestic sheep becomes artificially consistent with compliance with NEPA. I don’t see how it falls in line with NFMA… but perhaps federal the necessity for federal compliance is diluted if the state does all the harm ??… i’m no lawyer – but the arguments being tossed around by domestic sheep are so transparently indicative of the mentality that it will be fascinating to watch – and hopefully piss a few people off in the process…

  14. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    Robert- Yes I own a copy. Bighorns are incredible animals. After spending so much time in close contact with them, I could never kill one. I hunt them with a camera today.

    I sent Katie a copy of a suggestion I sent to the bighorn working group, dealing with bighorns that come in contact with domestic sheep. See what you think of it. It would need lots of fine tuning, but it might be a start.

  15. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    We we should propose that the ranchers reimburse the taxpayers of Idaho for the value of a lost bighorn tag if IDF&G kills a wild sheep that enters the “separation zone.”

    Note: I just stole this idea from some email correspondence and thought it should be posted.

  16. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    The idea of private commercial interests compensating the public for damage to public wildlife was stolen from Aldo Leopold. He recommended in 1936 that landowners be required to reimburse the public for killing hawks hanging around commercial bird farms to prey on pheasants without paying for them.

    Wildlife as the “property of the state” is a legal fiction; as I said, American wildlife jurisprudence does not acknowledge wildlife as property, that is, as entities to which the state has title. Wildlife are a public trust, the common heritage of a people that is under constant onslaught by private interests. The very purpose of the public trust is to protect the common interest in wildlife against the demands of private interests, to be enforced against the state by the courts.

    My view of the public trust is to use it to undermine the seemingly impregnable priority that livestock owners have vis wildlife.

  17. kt Avatar

    What the Woolgrower’s (and their Cattlemen counterparts really mean) when they say “property” is this twisted State Sovereignty kind of world view that they are always spouting. The word “sovereignty” makes their eyes gleam. Their pompous sense of “entitlement” inflate.

    They hate the word, or concept, or public lands, or anything that is not private property. It is a Sagebrush rebel/anti-federal government//anti-PUBLIC LANDS view kind of the West’s wild lands and wildlife. It is profoundly anti-wildlife. Wildlife belongs to the State (Good Old Boy Power Oligarchy) so that it can be subdued and killed for industry and occasional Sport or Profit (Guiding Industry/Mechanized hunting Gizmo Industry).

    I think it is sort of a hybrid of displaced Confederate soldier resentment and “bleeding the beast”/all is fair in bilking the Federal Government (if you have ever read Jon Krakauer’s book) simmering resentment of the Feds clamping down on polygamy ….

  18. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    As a native born southerner who grew up during the Civil Rights era, I see numerous parallels between the South and the West. The only difference is that here in the West, decency hasn’t yet begun to prevail.

  19. Buffaloed Avatar

    If I recall correctly most of the early immigrants to Idaho came from the South.

  20. Buffaloed Avatar

    Oh, and don’t forget that the Sesesch River was named after group of secessionists during the Civil War.

  21. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Buffaloed is right. Other than the Mormons, many of Idaho settlers were from South as evidenced by names like the Secesh River and the town of Dixie.

    Early Idaho was Democrat in the North and East, and Republican in the SW.

    The Mormon LDS in eastern Idaho had a secessionist impulse. They had hoped to become part of an independent or quasi-independent nation of “Deseret.”

    For Idaho to become a state, it had to be made Republican because at the time the Republicans controlled Congress and the White House. As a result, the northern Idaho Democrats who were southern-oriented and strong labor union had to be suppressed and the Mormons disenfranchised.

    As the Republican Administration set about doing this, a resentment toward the federal government built and created a political culture that has turned out to be lasting in dislike of the federal government.

  22. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins


    Most interesting history. Ain’t politics grand?

    As I understand Western history, most of the range wars had a Republican-big capital vs. democrat-little guy character, with Eastern and British capital that wanted total control of the range killing off the little guys who were moving onto the land.

    The big boys won, of course. That’s America.


  23. Cathy Bestland Avatar
    Cathy Bestland

    Being a Southerner, born and raised during the Civil Rights era myself, I am right there with you on the parallels between the South and the West. One of those parallels is that the rest of the nation is enslaved ( by being forced to subsidize their industry while being stripped of the right to enjoy undamaged public resources that are monopolized by that industry) to a very similar oligarchy as that of the Old South.

  24. Elkhorn Avatar

    Here’s something to chew on..
    I live right at the base of the elkhorn mountain range. I’ve enjoyed the bighorns immensely and have watched the herds grow and spread. Then along came a couple of people who apparently think the laws pertaining to keeping their animals inside their property does not apply to them. They have sheep and goats (over 100) and laamas. They just let them roam wherever. When one dies of who knows what near their home, they have atleast one dump. I found one of these dumps in early 2007 and notified F&G and BLM (as it was on BLM). F&G weren’t interrested enough to call me back but BLM has done what they can with these people. The killer here, is that this dump-off site (which had not only dead domestic sheep but poached mule deer as well) was right where a large herd of bighorns frequented. I was afraid the bighorns would contract whatever the domestic sheep has died from. So, I did what I could do and left it at that.
    Last weekend some friends of mine who like to hunt elk horns found another site where a domestic sheep (most probably from the above people’s herd) had died in an old holding pen. Only 100 yards away a bighorn ram was also dead. Both appeared to have died late last fall or early winter (07). Gosh, where do you suppose the bighorns got this?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan