- Associated Press - Friday, September 18, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Bacterial pneumonia that killed dozens of bighorn sheep in the western North Dakota Badlands last year has resurfaced this summer, sparking fears it will become an even bigger problem in the region.

The re-emergence of the illness has state wildlife officials reconsidering how to issue bighorn hunting licenses.

The Game and Fish Department called off the fall hunting season for the first time in more than three decades after pneumonia killed about three dozen sheep last year. The bighorn population managed by the state is not large - an August survey counted about 300 animals - and many that became sick and died last year were mature rams, which hunters seek.

Hunters can only receive one sheep license in their lifetime, even if they fail to bag a ram during that single season. At least 10,000 hunters apply each year for the handful of licenses selected annually in a lottery.

“We do not want to give someone a once-in-a-lifetime license and then have them say, ‘There’s no sheep out there,’” state Wildlife Chief Jeb Williams said.

State officials decide in February whether there will be a fall hunt, then hold the license lottery. The wildlife agency is now considering waiting until after its summer population survey, “so we’re not issuing once-in-a-lifetime licenses and then finding out disease is cranking up again,” Williams said.

Officials are not sure why pneumonia has surfaced the past two summers. Contact between bighorns and domestic sheep is one possibility. The illness also occurred after the transplant of bighorns from the Canadian province of Alberta, though Williams said the bacteria has never been in the Alberta population and has not occurred in herds of transplanted sheep in other states.

The Badlands herds hit by pneumonia this summer are the same three herds that were affected last year, according to Game and Fish big game biologist Brett Wiedmann.

“Many adults and lambs showing signs of disease in August likely will not survive the winter,” he said.

It is too early to tell the severity of the outbreak, according to Game and Fish wildlife veterinarian Dan Grove.

“The recurrence of pneumonia this summer may be more apparent when females and lambs are recounted next March,” he said.

The Midwest Chapter of the Wild Sheep Foundation has pledged $20,000 to help monitor the herds. The foundation typically auctions a bighorn hunting license each year to raise money for sheep management.

There are about 10 bighorn herds in the Badlands area where pneumonia is present, and Game and Fish will be monitoring whether the illness spreads to those that have not yet been affected. Removing the diseased herds is not being considered because the herds are considered one population unit.

“We would have to start completely from scratch, and that’s not an option,” Williams said.

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