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Protecting Wild Sheep From Domestic Sheep Bacteria

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 11, 2016
CLINTON, B.C.

More than 50 conservationists and domestic sheep producers concerned about wild sheep die-offs attended an educational session February 7, 2016. Across North America the bighorn sheep population has gone from an estimated 1.5-2 million sheep prior to 1850 to approximately 85,000 in 2012. In the Clinton area, the Chasm bighorn sheep population has declined precipitously from 110 to 28 since 2013.

The wild sheep forum was hosted by the BC Wildlife Federation, Clinton and District Outdoor Sportsmen Association, Thompson Guide-outfitters, Wild Sheep Foundation, Wild Sheep Society of BC, and The Wildlife Stewardship Council.

Participants learned that respiratory bacteria in domestic sheep have resulted in widespread die-offs of bighorn sheep in North America for over a century. These bacteria, primarily Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae and Mannheimia haemolytica, can be transmitted from nose-to-nose, or airborne contact between domestic and wild sheep, with often deadly results to wild sheep.

Presenters discussed a new market concept, Wild Sheep-SAFETM, which would apply to sheep farmers who produce wool and/or lamb products outside of wild sheep range. This sustainable approach to domestic sheep farming would be similar to the Ocean Wise program ensuring both the future of domestic sheep farming and wild sheep.

Kevin Hurley, Conservation Director for the Wild Sheep Foundation, based in Bozeman, MT discussed the history of pneumonia in bighorn sheep, previous outbreaks across multiple western states and provinces, and numerous peer-reviewed studies on the issue. His analogy was that not all people who smoke die of lung cancer but many do, and that while not every bighorn sheep which has come into contact with domestic sheep dies, many have. “The Wild Sheep Foundation and many bighorn sheep advocates believe there is room on the landscape for both domestic sheep and bighorn sheep, just not together,” said Hurley. “This approach has worked in other places, but it takes a lot of hard work, discussion, and willingness to collaborate, to move this issue forward,” added Hurley.

Millions of private conservation dollars have been invested in disease research to find a cure or vaccine, but there is no silver bullet on the medical front. New testing methods are able to identify whether domestic herds are carriers of the bacteria which could help lead to establishment of disease-free domestic herds. “On a small scale, it has been demonstrated that Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae-free domestic sheep and goats can be raised; further proof-of-concept efforts need to be made to demonstrate if they can be maintained over time,” said Hurley. “Efforts are currently underway in several states and provinces to investigate and prove this concept, which wild sheep conservationists support,” added Hurley.

Jeremy Ayotte, Coordinator for the BC Sheep Separation Program, a position funded through hunting license surcharges, presented on the history of die-offs in British Columbia. Ayotte stated, “The current approach of mitigating risk on a farm-by-farm basis is not financially or biologically sustainable. Wild sheep need legislation and policy to ensure farming practices are conducted sustainably.”

As part of the BC Sheep Separation Program, double fences were strategically built on select sheep producers’ property. In times past a minimum of 10 metres apart was recommended to minimize the risk of airborne transfer. New research out of Washington State has shown wild sheep can contract the disease at 10 metres; 20 metres is now the recommended minimum distance for double fencing.

The take home message from the forum was that wild and domestic sheep need to be separated if we are going to try to recover bighorn sheep in British Columbia and, in particular, the Chasm herd. Jesse Zeman, BCWF Resident Priority Program Manager said, “Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent by hunter license surcharges and government to create safe habitat for bighorn sheep but that those efforts have been extremely expensive and marginally successful. We need to move to a sustainable model for domestic sheep production to ensure future generations of British Columbians’ can see abundant wild sheep populations on the landscape.”

For more information, contact:
Jeremy Ayotte, Coordinator, BC Sheep Separation Program, (250) 804-3515 or jeremy.ayotte@gmail.com
Jesse Zeman, Resident Priority Program Manager, BC Wildlife Federation @ (250) 878-3799 or jessezeman@gmail.com
Kevin Hurley, Conservation Director, Wild Sheep Foundation @ (307) 899-9375 or khurley@wildsheepfoundation.org
Michael Schroeder, Director, Wild Sheep Society of BC @ (250) 804-5773 or m.schroeder@shaw.ca

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