State and local wildlife officials are ready to try new ways to save bighorn sheep in the Yakima River Canyon and elsewhere in Central Washington. We appreciate their determination and wish them the best of luck in their efforts to control — or better still, eradicate — a deadly bacteria that has been killing lambs for more than a decade.
The next step in saving the Yakima Canyon herd is scheduled to take place this month as state Department of Fish and Wildlife personnel execute two rounds of aerial captures — “an experiment many years in the making,” according to Mike Livingston, WDFW Region 3 director. Region 3 includes Yakima and Kittitas counties, home to the Yakima Canyon herd that once numbered nearly 300 animals but has dwindled to 100 or so adults due to mycoplasma ovipneumoniae.
Movi, as the disease is sometimes called, is a bacterial pathogen that causes pneumonia. Most adult sheep are strong enough to fight off the illness, but Movi can be deadly for lambs, which struggle to breathe. Wildlife officials believe the disease persists because of asymptomatic carriers. In years past, a few entire herds in the Northwest have been wiped out.
Hence, the exercise in the Yakima River Canyon. Officials hope to collar and test as many adult sheep as possible and, in doing so, better understand asymptomatic carriers — and eventually remove them from the herd.
For visitors to the canyon, don’t be surprised or alarmed if you see helicopters buzzing up and down the hillsides in the coming days. Scott McCorquodale, Region 3’s regional wildlife program manager, explained the process: As the copters follow herds, wildlife workers will shoot nets out of a cannon-like instrument to capture the sheep. Once the helicopter lands, workers will test and collar the sheep before releasing them. The collar will allow WDFW to trace sheep that test positive.
The recent winter weather slowed the process, McCorquodale noted. “We’re still hoping to get it done by the end of the month,” he said.
The capture-and-test process isn’t new, Livingston said, but it hasn’t been widely practiced here.
“We’re trying a ‘test and remove’ process that has been successful in other Western states but is still fairly new in Washington,” he said in a recent WDFW news release. “We’re working closely with partners in Idaho, Oregon, and the Wild Sheep Foundation to learn from this situation and if the approach could help clear pneumonia from other herds.”
Wildlife officials are constantly gathering and sharing information on threats to Washington’s 17 designated bighorn herds and seeking help from hunters, ranchers and other members of the public. Solutions have been hard to come by, and herds remain threatened. But it’s encouraging to know that WDFW remains focused on the cause — not just for the benefit of our local herds but for animals across the Northwest.