Disease threatens bighorn restoration

  • Wildlife officials move a sick bighorn sheep out of Hells Canyon

    Richard Cockle
  For decades, wildlife officials from Idaho, Washington and Oregon have worked hard to restore bighorn sheep to the Hells Canyon area. But in December, they feverishly tried to remove them after a deadly outbreak of pneumonia-like pasteurella. Hoping to contain the disease, officials netted 72 sick sheep and transported them by helicopters and trucks to a wildlife laboratory in Idaho. There, all but 19 died. Lab tests suggest the stress of being transported actually triggered their deaths. Back in the field, the disease has spread south to the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area; bighorns that died on site showed signs of getting the disease from a feral goat. So far, the rescue efforts have been most successful at reviving controversy over the impacts of domestic livestock on wild sheep.


"We have a lot at stake here," says Lloyd Oldenburg, an Idaho Fish and Game biologist. "The restoration project hangs in the balance."


Domestic sheep in the area are also in jeopardy, since many blame them for spreading the disease. In response to the outbreak, a coalition of hunting and conservation groups has asked for an injunction to speed up the removal of domestic sheep from the recreation area. Forest Service officials say they plan to close the remaining allotments by fall 1996 (HCN, 10/2/95).


"Management of that area has been a tragedy," says Pete Frost, a National Wildlife Federation attorney in Portland, Ore. "The domestic sheep should have been out of there two years ago."


Meanwhile, wildlife officials continue to look for ways to halt the epidemic; the most recent tactic involves dispersing medicated salt licks throughout the Hells Canyon area.


* Jenny Emery