December 2, 2019
The fine folks at Tobacco Plains Duty Free Shop in Grasmere, BC are a shining example. In their recent newsletter, amid great Holiday specials on their spirits, they took the time to share a growing concern that hits close to home for them and many others – the interaction of domestic sheep with wild sheep populations and the devastating disease transfer that can happen as a result.
The Wild Sheep Foundation and our friends at the Wild Sheep Society of BC applaud their effort for not only keeping a watchful eye on their seasonal visitors, but for their in-depth knowledge of the issues affecting them. We also want to acknowledge the quick response high level of cooperation that took place between the owner of the stray domestic, the staff at Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).
HERE IS A SIGHT WE DON'T WANT TO SEE TOO OFTEN
What a scare the staff at the Duty Free had on Monday, December 18.
We were just getting ready to have lunch and looked down at the field behind the Duty Free Store where we saw what we thought was a dog chasing our herd of Big Horn Sheep. On closer look we caught sight of a domestic ram chasing them. The wild sheep would have nothing to do with him - thank goodness but the domestic ram kept after them for quite some time. We called a farmer on the US side who we knew raised sheep and finally the owner from the US came and took it home.
Canada Customs who is aware of the danger to wild sheep if an infected domestic sheep comes into contact tried to scare the domestic ram off (he sure was a brave guy as they can be very aggressive) but it was persistent and hung around until the owner arrived. Canada customs contacted our local Conservation Officers who in turn contacted the US Biologists who took over from there. They visited the local farm and tested the ram which is presently under quarantine according to the latest news we have been able to obtain. We tried to get in touch with local CO's but to date we have had no reply with an update.
Cases in the past where infected domestic sheep have been in contact with wild sheep have resulted in the whole herd dying or having to be put down. That would be devastating. This herd winters in the vicinity of the Duty Free, Canadian and US Customs every year and they are like family, visiting for the holidays. They nestle in here for the winter enjoying a feeling of safety and comfort and every year the herd grows. What a stressful day that was for wildlife and humans alike. Assuredly for that visiting domestic Ram as well. Wild Sheep share a number of similarities with their domestic cousins and can even interbreed. We (the humans) were worried about the consequences of infection and that herd was not at all happy about the bothersome Ram chasing them around.
Even nose to nose contact between the two species can result in the transfer of a pathogen lethal to wild sheep. And because it takes time for animals to become symptomatic, an infected (but visibly healthy) bighorn that returns to its herd will spread the disease, potentially decimating an entire population. The culprit disease is MANHEIMA HAEMOLYTICA, a pneumonia causing bacterium commonly carried by domestic sheep. The bacteria is MYCOPLASMA OVIPNEUMONIAE, referred to as MOVI. Domestics have evolved resistance to this particular strain and rarely show symptoms, but wild sheep are highly susceptible and often die within days of contacting it. According to locals, back in the 80's a whole herd at the North end of this Valley died and there have never been big horn sheep at that locale again.
There are no effective vaccines to prevent deaths in Bighorn sheep, nor is there an effective method of delivering vaccines to these wild animals. However, in the absence of a medical solution, wildlife agencies in North American recommend that wild and domestic sheep populations be completely separated to avoid disease transmission. B.C. has developed a sheep 'Separation Program' in response to pneumonia die offs in the East Kootenays, which is where we are. Formally initiated in 2008 the B.C. Sheep Separation Program (BCSSP) is a collaboration involving the Ministry of Environment, the Wild Sheep society of B.C., the B.C. Sheep Federation, B.C. Sheep Producers and other stake holders. The Wild Sheep Working Group which is a part of this program is made up of domestic sheep producers, regional biologists , hunters and others who are working towards a solution. The program is doing a good job of educating commercial producers in high risk areas, however, there still is work to be done with small-scale landowners, who might want a couple of lambs for vegetation control or 4-H purposes. They are also discouraging additional domestic sheep operations from starting up in the Bighorn Territory.
They are exploring innovative ways to allow and encourage sheep fences to provide effective separation such as refuge pastures which entails a smaller, fenced field within a larger pasture where farmers can place their sheep if Bighorns are spotted nearby or during time where there is a high risk of contact, such as during the 'rut'.
Rut can be a treacherous time for the Bighorns, far beyond the risk of injury from intra-species tussels. Bighorn Sheep are a highly social animal and the real danger is the company they keep.