Nevada Killed Bighorn to Save Them
May 13, 2016

At article in the Idaho Statesman reported on the decision of the State of Nevada to eliminate a herd of bighorn sheep that were diagnosed with pneumonia before they intermingle with other herds in different parts of the state.

It's a "heated topic that has vast socio-economic and ecological impacts in the western United States," said Maggie Highland, Ph.D., a USDA animal disease researcher at Washington State University. She is among those who question the science and wonder whether Nevada acted prematurely, "without really understanding all of the factors that caused the first outbreak."

"I'd also question how we know for certain that none of the members of the affected herd hadn't already intermingled with the herd that they were reportedly trying to protect," Highland wrote in an email to the Associated Press.

Skeptics include Mark Thurmond, Ph.D., professor emeritus of veterinary epidemiology at the University of California-Davis. "What they are doing is illogical - to say we found these agents, therefore, we've got to eradicate this entire herd," Thurmond said. He says disease transmittal involves a complex combination of multiple agents and outside impacts, ranging from drought and wildfires, to extreme cold and snow.

"If the herd is doing well otherwise, why destroy the gene pool that has been able to handle these agents?" he told AP.

State officials felt that if they didn't act fast, the sheep would disperse as the snowpack melted. Nevada state wildlife veterinarian Peregrine Wolff said they were lucky to get an early warning of trouble in December because they'd just fitted several sheep with radio-signal collars in a partnership with Oregon to monitor movement across state lines.

"You could tell right away there was something not right because of the fact they weren't moving," Wolff said. "Within weeks we started realizing we were at the start of a devastating disease event."

Necropsies confirmed the dead animals had pneumonia.

"I take exception to anyone in the domestic sheep industry looking over my shoulder and telling the Nevada Department of Wildlife how to manage," said Wolff. "I totally understand the politics. But to deny the science because of the politics is sort of short-sighted to me."