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Researchers studying Pine Ridge bighorn lamb deaths

Researchers studying Pine Ridge bighorn lamb deaths
A pair of bighorn sheep lambs and ewes move across the rocky terrain of Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area in the Wildcat Hills near Gering on July 27. Unlike herds in the Pine Ridge, lambs there are thriving. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

CHADRON, Neb. – Disease issues have once again struck bighorn sheep lambs in northwestern Nebraska’s Pine Ridge, but a comprehensive research project is on track to counter the maladies.

Todd Nordeen, the Nebraska Game and Park Commission’s big game research and disease program manager, said all 21 lambs equipped with tracking collars in May and June have died – almost all to pneumonia.

While pneumonia is the cause, Commission biologists want to know what pathogens are triggering the disease. They have gathered and obtained samples from the dead sheep and shipped them to a laboratory for testing.

“We obviously have some deadly pathogens in the herds that are wreaking havoc,” Nordeen said.

Various bacteria can be the cause. After knowing the bacteria responsible for the pneumonia, researchers will develop a plan to counter the problem.

Nordeen said the collared lambs died from pneumonia in four to 57 days after birth, with most succumbing to the disease in 30-45 days. He knows of only one lamb, a non-collared specimen, still living in the Pine Ridge.

Unlike Nebraska’s Wildcat Hills to the south, birthing rates in the Pine Ridge have been low for the past three years. After no lambs survived there in 2016, the Commission decided to ramp up research efforts.

“Without any lambs our herd sizes in the Pine Ridge are going nowhere but down,” Nordeen said. “If we don’t do something, we won’t have bighorn sheep in northwest Nebraska.”

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