Virus in West Kootenay bighorn sheep herd could spread to Okanagan | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Virus in West Kootenay bighorn sheep herd could spread to Okanagan

A bighorn sheep
August 27, 2021 - 6:00 AM

A virus with no specific treatment has ravaged a herd of bighorn sheep in the Grand Forks area in the West Kootenays, and the only thing stopping it from spreading into the Okanagan is a lack of a westerly wind.

Bluetongue virus spreads through the bites of parasitic flies known as Culicoides biting midges. So far 20 bighorn sheep — 75 per cent of the the sheep collared by the Wild Sheep Society of B.C. — have been found dead, the society said in a press release, Aug. 25.

The future of the remaining herd of bighorn sheep is uncertain and their survival isn't guaranteed.

"To be perfectly honest it’s unknown at this point," wild sheep society director Peter Gutsche said.

In addition to the sheep, white tail deer have also been found dead in the area from the bluetongue virus.

Gutsche said the biologists he's in touch with don’t seem to be worried about the disease spreading beyond Grand Forks. However, the bugs travel by getting carried on winds, which are exacerbated by hot and dry summers.

He said sheep are social animals, which makes it difficult to prevent them from spreading certain diseases as they are often rubbing noses with each other. He predicts bluetonuge will continue to be present in the Grand Forks area until overnight temperatures dip low enough to kill the insects that carry it.

“There’s nothing we can do at this point, except hope that a frost event happens sooner than later," Gutsche said.

READ MORE: Mule deer and bighorn sheep benefit from wildfires

“In an area where we would expect to see 50 sheep at once, it was heart-wrenching to witness so much death,” he said on the society's Facebook page. “Our members will be on site again over the next few days to get a better idea of just how many animals are affected. We know that there are many sheep and whitetail deer that are lost to this disease so far.”

Dr. Caeley Thacker, provincial wildlife veterinarian, said it’s not impossible that the disease could spread into other regions, like its next-door neighbour the Okanagan. She also said that a wind current would be the most likely cause of spread.

“It seems to be quite local at this time,” she said, adding that the virus presents no risk to humans – something hunters may want to know.

The wild sheep society and Wild Sheep Foundation worked on collaring the local herd over the past two years, and those efforts helped them discover the issue.

“When a collared animal is found via GPS to not move for a set number of hours, our volunteers attend in a timely manner to investigate,” the society said in a press release, adding the number of deceased sheep is expected to climb upon further investigation.

The society is asking the public to stay off of DL 492, the 109.2 hectare parcel of land east of Grand Forks where the bighorn sheep live. The organization described the area as “open, rolling bunchgrass grassland interspersed with patches of trembling aspen-rose thickets and scattered black hawthorn shrubs.”

READ MORE: Bighorn sheep in South Okanagan facing their own pandemic

To contact a reporter for this story, email Dan Walton or call 250-488-3065 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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