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The big sleep for big sheep: Bighorn sheep season closes Dec. 31

BigHorn (1).jpg
Bighorn sheep season closes Dec. 31. Stock Photo.

While the season closes on Dec. 31, a record number of bighorn sheep hunting licences were available this year, three more than the average, due in large part to a concern of bronchopneumonia in the animal’s population in Unit B1, the southern part of the Badlands, south of Interstate 94.

As Brett Wiedmann, North Dakota Game and Fish’s big game management biologist in Dickinson, told the Press on Monday, the goal of these extra licenses was to curb the ruminant’s diseased populace in the area.

“What we wanted to ultimately do was depopulate that entire area, which would mean removing all those sheep from there and do that, this year, at least, via hunting,”

As stated by the Bighorn Sheep Disease Research Consortium, the disease, which was initially identified in the 1990s, was brought into bighorn sheep habitats by domestic sheep and goats grazing on the same lands.

No matter the cause the effects are devastating.

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“When a bighorn sheep population is initially infected, often as many as a third, and sometimes up to 90%, of the herd may die of pneumonia,” the Consortium said. “Most survivors are apparently immune, but their lambs are not and usually die before weaning. In some populations, annual pneumonia outbreaks in lambs continue for decades after the initial infection, which prevents the population from bouncing back.”

In line with the BSDRC, the Wildlife Management Institute, a professional conservation organization that works to improve the professional foundation of wildlife management, states that bronchopneumonia in bighorns is caused by Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a bacterial infection that reduces the ability of the animal’s lungs to fight off disease.

“Mycoplasma infections are not uncommon in domestic sheep, which are the likely source of transmission to wild bighorns, but domestic sheep are more likely than bighorns to survive infection,” the WMI said in an article dealing with the link between bighorn death and the mycoplasma pathogen. “In addition, it does not appear that bighorns are able to build resistance to the disease over generations.”

This inability to stave off illness has dwindled Unit B1’s bighorn population so drastically that earlier in 2019, Game and Fish enacted a plan to knock out the afflicted population all together, replacing them with healthier sheep.

“We’ve done some management actions there, including introducing bighorn sheep to that area, but they haven’t done real well — not very good land survival,” Wiedmann said. “So, now that they’re down to 0 or 20 animals, we thought it might be the time to just depopulate that entire area and, eventually, hopefully, reintroduce healthy bighorns to the southern Badlands.”

When asked where the new sheep might come from, the biologist said the department was still undecided.

“We just don’t know that at this point: that’s definitely down the road,” he said. “Our intention is to find a suitable population, but at this point, we don’t have anything solidified.”

A record number of North Dakota hunters,15,518 to be exact, applied for one of the five available licenses. All five of those lucky enough to receive authorization to hunt bighorns in the Badlands were successful in their expeditions, according to Wiedmann.

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“We issued five tags and got five rams, including one new state record that came out of the Badlands,” he told the Press. “Hunters did real well this year.”

Related Topics: HUNTING
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