Much misinformation has been promulgated by numerous parties, albeit often with the best of intentions, on a hoped for “silver bullet” vaccine to protect wild bighorn sheep from fatal respiratory disease shed by domestic sheep to wild sheep when they come in contact.
More than a decade ago, the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF), formerly the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, established the Rocky Crate/Foundation for North American Wild Sheep Endowed Chair for wild sheep disease research at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University (WSU.) Since forming the now Rocky Crate/WSF Endowed Chair, WSF and its chapters and affiliates have contributed more than $2 million of private dollars to fund disease research on this critical issue impacting the restoration and enhancement of wild sheep – a highly valued and iconic huntable and watchable North American big game animal.
The initial research funded by WSF and performed by the renowned scientist, Professor and Rocky Crate/WSF Endowed Chair, Subramaniam Srikumaran, BVSc, MS, PhD, and his team, proved irrefutably that when domestic sheep come into contact with bighorn sheep, domestic sheep can shed pathogens to bighorn sheep with most often fatal results to the bighorns. Dr. Srikumaran’s current research includes searching for ways to either prevent the shedding of the lethal bacterium from domestic sheep to wild sheep to even the now touted “vaccine” for either domestic or wild sheep. While this research is promising, some have erroneously reported that such a vaccine will be available in five years. And, the domestic sheep industry is using this erroneous conclusion to propose a five-year moratorium on implementing science based decisions on the Payette National Forest in Idaho and ALL Federally managed lands that aim to protect bighorn sheep from possible contact with domestic sheep grazing on our public lands.
Here are the facts according to Dr. Srikumaran in a letter to me regarding the research we are funding: His team has developed an experimental vaccine that protected 100% of the four (4) vaccinated bighorns in captivity in his research center at WSU. “It certainly is a great step forward.” Dr. Srikumaran noted but he added “However, four booster injections had to be given to render the animals immune to the challenge organisms…it is obviously impractical to inject bighorn sheep many times with a vaccine. Even one injection is too many, as far as wild animals are concerned.”
Anyone who has hunted or a watched wild sheep knows that “impractical” is an understatement. It would be impossible to vaccinate with an injection all wild sheep in the wild against this deadly domestic sheep borne organism. Recognizing this limitation, Dr. Srikumaran and his team are searching for a means to deliver the vaccine either orally in feed or nasally but he noted optimistically “...even if everything goes well, a vaccine that is ready for use in the field will not be available in less than 10-15 years from now.”
While we support and applaud Dr. Srikumaran for this promising and cutting edge research, the impractical plan of inoculating wild sheep in a wild environment, and even a more pressing concern, the moral, ethical and philosophical issues of “vaccinating” wild animals to prevent them from dying from contact with domestic stock in the wild needs to be addressed.
Dr. Srikumaran and his colleagues with our encouragement and funding are also working on a means to prevent domestic sheep, which are handled regularly by producers in the field, from shedding the toxins to wild sheep - a much more practical alternative to vaccinating and “domesticating” wild sheep in the wild. WSF invites and encourages the domestic industry to join us in funding this important research.
In the interim, and this interim might be 15+ years, we do know how to protect wild sheep from contracting disease from domestic sheep…keep them separated!
Based in Cody, Wyoming with a worldwide membership, the Wild Sheep Foundation is the largest and most effective conservation, hunting and advocacy organization dedicated to wild sheep and their habitat. WSF’s purpose is “Putting and Keeping Sheep on the Mountain™.” Since forming in 1977, WSF has raised and put on the ground more than $85 million to mission programs benefitting wild sheep, other wildlife, their habitat and those who hunt and enjoy them. WSF advocates for multiple use on our public lands but not necessarily all uses on every acre. WSF is committed to developing collaborative solutions to land management issues and works with all stakeholders. WSF seeks to ensure the restoration and enhancement of wild sheep throughout the west while also ensuring the vibrancy of rural communities and the agricultural and rangeland jobs that sustain them.