Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials killed two bighorn sheep in the Lower Deer Creek drainage southeast of Big Timber late Monday to prevent the potential spread of disease to the rest of the wild sheep herd.
The two yearling lambs had been in close contact with domestic sheep on private land in the area, and biologists worried that they could carry disease from the domestic animals back to the wild herd, according to an FWP release.
FWP area wildlife biologist Justin Paugh, of Big Timber, said a rancher in the lower few miles of the Lower Deer Creek drainage saw the bighorn sheep in his herd and contacted the department.
After confirming that the wild and domestic sheep had been in close contact, Paugh and Game Warden Derek Fagone shot the two bighorns on Monday evening and transported them to the department laboratory in Bozeman.
Neil Anderson, FWP’s wildlife laboratory supervisor, said available scientific literature and data support the premise that, when domestic and wild sheep mix, the bighorns don’t do well.
Wild sheep immune systems cannot fend off some diseases carried by domestic sheep, according to FWP. When one animal gets pneumonia or other diseases then rejoins its wild herd, other bighorn sheep can succumb.
Last year, several hundred bighorn sheep contracted pneumonia and were either removed or died from the disease in the Bonner, East Fork of the Bitterroot and Rock Creek areas near Missoula. FWP biologists continue to investigate whether the domestic sheep were associated with the pneumonia outbreaks, Anderson said.
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Montana’s recently approved “Montana Bighorn Sheep Conservation Strategy” calls for removal of any wild sheep that have had close physical contact with domestic herds.
Paugh said he suspects that the two yearling sheep came from a herd 20 miles away in the upper Stillwater River drainage. The Monument Peak herd winters in the upper Boulder River drainage, but those animals still are snowed in and probably did not move down the creeks, he said.
Wild bighorn sheep normally do not appear 20 miles downstream, particularly at this time of year, Paugh said. Biologists did not know immediately what would make the two sheep wander so far from their herd.
Biologists and game wardens will continue to closely monitor the area to ensure that no other wild sheep are in contact with the domestic herd, Paugh said.