ND sheep ranchers question bighorn die-off theory

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BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota sheep ranchers are questioning the theory that they're to blame for a large die-off of wild bighorns in the western Badlands.

At least 23 bighorns have died of pneumonia since early August. Most were transplanted from Alberta, Canada, in February.

The state Game and Fish Department believes the wild sheep were infected by domestic sheep because they are known carriers of the specific bacteria found in the dead bighorns. However, state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams and State Veterinarian Susan Keller acknowledge that there are no test results to back up that assertion.

"We have no witnesses to any interaction. We have no indication that the domestic sheep were carrying the (bacteria)," Keller told The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1ru6GGz ). "We can't say it didn't happen, but there are no test results that proved it was in the domestic sheep."

Brad Gilbertson, vice chairman of the North Dakota Lamb and Wool Producers Association, said he questions whether domestic sheep are to blame. The wild bighorns have been near the suspect flock of domestic sheep for years, and nothing happened until the Alberta bighorns were brought in, the Sherwood rancher said.

The sheep in question were given to a girl as part of the association's "starter flock" program. Gilbertson said the 15-year-old girl now believes she's responsible for the die-off, and "I don't know if that's true."

"I'm not going to say the domestic sheep had nothing to do with this," Gilbertson said. "I don't have that science, but I expect Game and Fish to give me that same courtesy."


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, http://www.bismarcktribune.com

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