Our bighorn are sick and dying.

400 dead this winter in an “unprecedented” series of events

Bighorn Sheep in Salmon River Canyon © Ken Cole
Bighorn Sheep in Salmon River Canyon © Ken Cole

Populations of bighorn sheep are struggling with pneumonia throughout the west. Washington, Nevada, Montana, and most recently Utah are having outbreaks of pneumonia which have resulted in the deaths of 400 or more bighorn sheep.

Statements like the following are often made about the outbreaks.

“While domestic sheep carry pathogens that can infect bighorns, there’s no evidence linking them to any of the pneumonia outbreaks, wildlife officials said.”

But pneumonia does not just appear from nowhere, it has to come from somewhere. Were these diseases already in the herds from earlier exposures and have just become deadly due to winter conditions or have they been introduced to the wild sheep through contact with domestic sheep or goats recently?

Upon close examination of media reports and agency documents evidence can be found that domestic sheep were in areas close to some of the outbreaks. For instance there has been a program whereby domestic sheep are used in an effort to control weeds near Missoula and domestic sheep grazing is permitted by the US Forest Service in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada in occupied bighorn habitat. The media has not picked up on these items yet they repeat the claims that there is no evidence linking the two.

My observation of coughing bighorn sheep Thursday in the Salmon River Canyon west of Shoup, Idaho may turn out to be merely some chronic problem that doesn’t result in widespread deaths of bighorn sheep but it does raise questions about the management of domestic sheep and bighorn sheep. Are we being careful enough? Are we taking these threats seriously? Are the agencies looking closely at what is occurring on the ground? Can outbreaks in one area extend for miles into other areas? Did the outbreak in Montana make it to Idaho?

We know that bighorn sheep are capable of traveling long distances so what happens in Montana may affect Idaho. Likewise, we know that what occurs just a mile, or even the recommended nine miles outside of what is considered “occupied habitat” may take out entire herds of bighorn sheep. This make-it-up-as-you-go decision making by the agencies about where to allow domestic sheep and goats isn’t working and there needs to be a strictly enforced guideline to make sure that domestic sheep and goats on public lands stay et least 9 miles away from bighorn sheep and that those on private property have fencing that secures them from contact with bighorns.

If these policies aren’t put in to place then I know that there are a few groups who will petition for listing of native herds under the ESA.

Bighorn sheep populations with pnemonia in red.
Bighorn sheep populations with pnemonia in red.

Here are the recent stories about the outbreaks.

Utah officials kill 26 sick bighorn sheep
Associated Press on LocalNews8.com

Bighorn Sheep Continue to Succumb to Pneumonia
Nevada Division of Wildlife press release

Outbreak kills hundreds of bighorn sheep in West
By Martin Griffith
Associated Press Writer



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  1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I have observed Idaho, Wyoming and Yellowstone Bighorns coughing on several occasions over the past thirty years. I was always told that it was because of lung worms. I have never noticed this same coughing in remote herds in Canada and Alaska where the sheep have never come in contact with their domestic cousins.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Larry, that is comforting and I hope that is the case with those that I saw in the Salmon River Canyon. The biologist who I reported it to seemed to be concerned though.

  2. Richie, Giallanzo,NJ Avatar
    Richie, Giallanzo,NJ

    Why doesn’t the states herd the goats and sheep like they protect their livestock against the buffalo, yea right and it’s an even playing field.

  3. ProWolf in WY Avatar
    ProWolf in WY

    Richie, that has been one of the number one complaints on this site. Get the livestock off the public lands.

  4. Richie, Giallanzo,NJ Avatar
    Richie, Giallanzo,NJ

    To pro wolf;
    Really the cards are stacked against us big corps are really dug in in our country more than ever in all subjects. This really is for the birds to be polite

  5. Dawn Avatar

    Couldn’t have said it better ProWolf .

  6. smalltownID Avatar

    I was at the Ebenezer Indian Shelter about 5 miles upstream from the middle fork and the big horn were coughing most of the morning friday and saturday when they weren’t kicking rocks down onto the truck. 🙂

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      That’s precisely where I saw these sheep.

  7. Tom Woodbury Avatar

    Ken: You should know that there is a private sheep ranch on Marshall Mtn. here that is much closer to the BHS than the Mt. Jumbo weed eaters. From my discussions with folks here at FWP, they suspect there have been numerous contacts over the years between BHS and domestics, both here and lower Rock Creek and EF Bitterroot, and the question in their mind is why now and in such proliferation? It does seem like there is another factor or factors at play, though certainly domestics are the disease vector.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      That’s good info. I find it odd, but not too odd, that FWP isn’t talking publicly about this. Most of the stories in the media seem to discount it as a possibility or at least avoid it and make it sound like a mystery. It’s pretty obvious that there has been some contact.

      Of course another worry is that these outbreaks may be impacting herds which are distant from them through dispersals. I hope this is not the case but those populations shown as isolated may not be so isolated as they appear. “Dispersal happens” 😉

  8. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    and this has what to do with the subject of this thread.?

  9. JEFF E Avatar
    JEFF E

    I realize that. I know this is bob of FOTNEH and apparently needs a Professor to tell him to wash his hands and don’t leave animal guts laying around.
    What is left out is that domestic sheep pose the greatest risk of infection and have been historically the greatest source of human infection.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar

      Well I took down Bob Fanning’s comment. He can put it back up but on the correct thread ”have you read any interesting stuff,” and we can all get scared of the dog tapeworm.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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Ken Cole