Zion park officials concerned for bighorn sheep herd after outbreak of deadly pneumonia

A desert bighorn sheep stands on a sandstone cliff in Zion National Park, date not specified | Photo by NaturesThumbPrint/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Zion National Park officials are concerned for the bighorn sheep herd in the park after discovering that some sheep had contracted a deadly strain of pneumonia.

Bighorn sheep, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

Pneumonia can be deadly to bighorn sheep, and two have had to be euthanized in the past few weeks in order to diagnose the illness and strain after they found a female with the cough July 20, Zion spokeswoman Aly Baltrus said.

The park is asking visitors to report any sheep that are displaying symptoms of pneumonia, specifically coughing, so that biologists can track the illness to determine how much of it has already spread.   

“You can hear it from a distance. It’s very much like a human cough,” Baltrus told the Associated Press.

Not all strains of pneumonia are deadly to the animals, but the one affecting those in Zion is, Baltrus told St. George News.

However, at this point, they are unsure what percent of the population will actually be affected. It can vary widely, ranging from 20 percent to 100 percent. The median mortality rate based on past events in other herds is 48 percent.

The signs that a sheep has pneumonia include a cough, nasal discharge, trouble breathing and laziness, but most of the time the diseased animal is found dead, according to a National Park Service article. There is currently no vaccination or cure for bighorn sheep pneumonia.

A bighorn sheep ewe and her lamb, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

Pneumonia is relatively common in bighorn sheep. The animals are usually able to fight it off themselves if it is not a deadly strain. The pneumonia that the sheep have is not dangerous to humans.

This is the first case of pneumonia they have seen in the Zion herd. Approximately 500 of the 800 bighorn sheep living in Zion live at the slick rock areas on the east side of the park, Baltrus told the Associated Press.

Pneumonia can spread quickly and easily among the sheep. They can contract it from nose-to-nose contact or when one coughs on another, Jace Taylor, a bighorn sheep biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told the Associated Press.

Right now the male sheep are beginning to look for mates, making it difficult to contain the spread of pneumonia, Baltrus told the Associated Press.

Visitors who come across an infected sheep should not make contact with the animal, and should report it to Zion National Park at 435-772-0217 or Zion_park_information@nps.gov.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Email: mshoup@stgnews.com

Twitter:  @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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