As more sick bighorns are being reported on Cleman Mountain northwest of Yakima, WDFW has taken the very rare step of issuing more hunting permits for the herd there.
The state agency released five additional any-ram tags for a Nov. 4-29 hunt, and at least two of those have already been filled, according to manager Brock Hoenes.
“The motivation was simply to offer additional opportunity before the sheep died of pneumonia rather than just accept the reduction of future opportunity,” he said.
The permits went to those who were not drawn this past spring for the coveted Sept. 15-Oct. 9 hunt.
Hoenes said five of the first six hunters WDFW contacted jumped on the opportunity and were “very appreciative and excited” to take part.
A very unusual move, Hoenes said he didn’t know of any other such instance when WDFW has issued extra permits. He said the Washington chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation supported it.
It was spurred by confirmation in mid-October that a dead lamb tested positive for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, or Movi, a bacteria carried by domestic sheep and goats and that causes often-fatal pneumonia in bighorns.
Until that diagnosis, the Cleman Mountain Herd was believed to be free of the disease.
Groups have been calling on land managers to reduce the risk of Movi being transmitted to bighorns by private herds grazing on public ground.
“It is important to remember that the true issue at hand is the need for separation of domestic and wild sheep,” Andrew Kelso of WAWSF told me last month.
Since that first lamb, hunters have been reporting more sick sheep, according to Hoenes. Tell-tale signs include lethargy and coughing.
“Still too soon to know how large of a die-off will occur,” he said.
As for where the dead lamb picked up the disease, that remains unclear as well – and may never be resolved, he said.
“The strain type came back as a new one, so all we can say is the source wasn’t the Yakima herd,” Hoenes reported.
Those bighorns, which roam the canyon of the same name, are known to carry Movi, which can linger in herds for years, gradually leading to a declining population as lambs succumb.
There is no way to treat it and in the past managers have killed off entire herds to prevent rams from spreading it during the rut.
But in the rugged country where Idaho, Washington and Oregon come together, biologists think they may have found a way to get rid of the disease: by repeatedly testing animals and removing those that are positive twice in a row, eliminating carriers that are passing it down to lambs.
“Where we are now is that we have healthy populations almost everywhere in Hells Canyon and the Blue Mountains. It’s awesome,” Francis Cassiar, a researcher affiliated with both IDFG and WSU, told outdoor reporter Eric Barker of the Lewiston Tribune earlier this fall. “There is no pneumonia. There is no mycoplasma. It’s not present.”
Back in Central Washington, the news is better with the Quilomene Herd, which had 12 bighorns lethally removed in October to get ahead of a potential outbreak after a wandering diseased domestic ewe came in contact with a group of seven rams near Gingko Petrified Forest State Park.
“We’ve done two flights now and still no observations of sick sheep,” reported Hoenes. “We still have two more flights scheduled and plan to do them, but are feeling more and more optimistic. We observed more than 150 bighorn on our last flight and all looked good.”
Hunters and other members of the public have been asked to report any observations of sick sheep immediately.