Bighorn sheep mingling with domestic sheep

A bighorn ram is seen within yards of a domestic sheep herd on Bill Hoppe's property near Gardiner on Nov. 28, 2013. 

On Thursday, Kevin Hurley was thankful for many things, but the sight of a bighorn ram within 6 feet of a flock of domestic sheep was not one of them.

On Thanksgiving Day, Hurley, conservation director for the Wild Sheep Foundation, was driving to Gardiner from Livingston on his way to visit friends.

North of Yankee Jim Canyon, he detoured to the west side of the Yellowstone River where he saw a gaggle of photographers snapping pictures of 60 to 70 bighorn sheep.

After returning to the highway and entering the Gardiner Basin, he glanced over at a field with a herd of domestic sheep and slowed.

“I caught a motion out of the corner of my eye and saw a ram coming off the hill,” Hurley said. “He crossed over to the fence and hopped over at a low spot like he knew right where to go.”

The ram had jumped into a pasture where Jardine resident Bill Hoppe has moved his sheep.

Wildlife advocates voiced concern last spring when Hoppe bought sheep for the first time and put them on the pasture that borders the Yellowstone River about eight miles north of Yellowstone National Park.

Wolf advocates protested after Hoppe shot one of two Yellowstone wolves that killed eight of his lambs.

Others worry because domestic sheep carry disease that can affect bison and wild sheep.

Domestic sheep can carry a few different strains of respiratory bacteria that can be deadly to bighorn sheep if they touch noses with domestics.

Entire herds can die from pneumonia such as they have in Nevada and California. Montana had an outbreak in 2009 when 20 percent of bighorn sheep were wiped out.

Gardiner wildlife photographer Deby Dixon said photographers have noticed bighorn sheep lambs coughing and choking in past weeks. She has reported it to Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

“It's analogous to when the Europeans spread smallpox to the Native Americans — Europeans had immunity just like Old-World sheep have immunity after living among other livestock for centuries,” Hurley said. “But the bacteria are still novel in the western U.S.”

Hurley, a Wyoming Game and Fish bighorn biologist for 30 years, said the ram was initially startled by the sound of the bells on Hoppe's sheep. But the urges of the breeding season caused the ram to get within about 6 feet of the sheep.

Hurley yelled at the ram, which eventually jumped out of the pasture. Hurley then chased the ram back up the hill.

Hurley drove on to his holiday dinner but returned a few hours later to see if the ram stayed away. He counted 27 bighorn sheep standing outside the pasture.

“This is the single biggest wildlife issue in much of the West,” Hurley said. “It's a difficult situation because it's private land. But everyone is really concerned.”

Montana chapter executive director Jim Weatherly said he tried to call Hoppe, but his calls weren't returned.

Weatherly talked to Hoppe in April to propose some alternatives such as helping Hoppe find a different pasture or installing a double fence around the pasture.

Weatherly said Hoppe wasn't receptive to any alternatives.

“I even talked to him about the danger of predators and it wasn't two days later that the wolves killed his lambs,” Weatherly said.

FWP warden Sam Sheppard said no FWP employees have seen any bighorn sheep in Hoppe's pasture and that Hoppe also hadn't seen any.

Sheppard said FWP would continue to monitor the situation. He said nothing could be done after the fact but asked people to report any similar incidents so wardens can respond.

Hurley said he tried to report it but no one was around on the holiday.