Late last month a National Park Service employee found four desert bighorn sheep dead in California, prompting national and state officials to conduct a field survey to confirm if a new wildlife disease was poised to take a toll on the state’s sheep population. Biologists from the National Park Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with volunteer conservationists, will be taking a trip to Old Dad Mountain where the dead sheep had been found. Analysis of samples taken from the dead bighorns lead biologists to believe that pneumonia may be the culprit, but wildlife agencies are taking precautions for a number of scenarios.

“While we do not yet know the full extent of this disease event, we are taking this situation seriously. Bighorn sheep are highly susceptible to pneumonia,” said Ben Gonzales, Senior Wildlife Veterinarian with CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory.

Other animals in the area have been reported to be sickly, walking strangely and suffering from breathing problems. Pneumonia is often fatal to bighorn sheep, which may contract the disease from domestic animals. A population of 200 to 300 bighorns reside in the area and is critical to the sustainability of the species’ overall population in California. Although bighorns have made a major comeback since a severe depopulation in the 1900s, they are still considered a vulnerable species.

Hunters are rarely afforded the opportunity to harvest a bighorn, many states only offer a handful of licenses each year. These hunts are regarded by sportsmen as the opportunity of a lifetime.

“The herd of desert bighorn sheep in the Old Dad Mountain area is one of the largest native populations in the Mojave Desert,” said Mojave National Preserve Superintendent Stephanie Dubois. “Scientists from the National Park Service and California Department of Fish and Wildlife and working together to learn all they can about this disease outbreak so that we can do everything possible to reduce its impact.”

Image courtesy California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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