- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) - Nevada wildlife biologists are recommending 100 hunting tags for ewes to reduce the numbers of some bighorn sheep populations and improve the overall health of herds.

The Nevada Board of Wildlife Commissioners earlier authorized the hunt - the first in Nevada targeting female bighorn sheep. Biologists are recommending 85 tags for Desert bighorn ewes found in southern Nevada and 15 California ewe tags in northern Nevada.

Biologists say it’s a decision of “last resort” because of ongoing drought and range conditions. But it’s also a testament to the success of Nevada’s efforts over the past four decades to restore sheep numbers.

Populations have quadrupled to about 12,000 since the first sheep were released in the late 1960s.

“We now have more sheep than any other state except Alaska,” Department of Wildlife spokesman Chris Healy said.

Over the years, Nevada has been moving sheep to various mountain ranges and transferring them to other states, including 50 that were taken to a new home in Utah last fall.

“We’re running out of places to put them,” Healy said.

Sheep are also prone to disease outbreaks and die-offs, something exacerbated with the animals are stressed from drought, lack of forage, and degraded and cramped habitat, biologists said. Tests last year on animals in southern Nevada confirmed the presence of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. That bacteria and another, Pasteurella, is strongly associated with pneumonia outbreaks in populations of free-ranging bighorn sheep through the western U.S.

The presence of the bacteria makes those herds unsuitable for transplant elsewhere.

“We have to focus on the overall health and sustainability of bighorn sheep herds to ensure long-term success of these animals in Nevada,” said Mike Cox, a big-game biologist with the state agency. “At this time, that means removing excess animals, including ewes, through hunting as we have exhausted all other avenues.”

“It’s a better practice to remove 20 animals to lessen the danger to 500,” he said.

State biologists are recommending 15 ewe tags be issued for California bighorns in the Sheep Creek Range north of Battle Mountain. The suggested ewe tag quota for Desert bighorns is 20 in the Muddy Mountains northeast of Las Vegas and 65 in various ranges west of Tonopah.

Wildlife commissioners are expected to set final hunting-tag quotes for all big game species when they meet next weekend in Reno.