Southern Nevada's desert bighorn sheep population could be in trouble because of an outbreak of pneumonia, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Pneumonia isn't contagious for humans, but the Department of Wildlife says the problem for sheep is worse than they originally thought, and for now there is no solution.
The department says there are more than 11,000 bighorn sheep in Southern Nevada, and this is the first time a deadly pneumonia outbreak has hit the population. There is no way to treat an infected sheep, or to keep healthy sheep from catching the disease.
"We like to look out the backyard and see (the sheep) wandering around. That's one of the reasons we live here," said Les Confair. He and his wife live across the street from Hemenway Park, a hideaway in Boulder City where sheep from the River Mountains are known to gather and graze in the summers.
"This is probably one of the largest wild herds people can actually see. Tour busses and so forth stop to see them," Confair explained.
Last summer, visitors alerted the Nevada Department of Wildlife that some of the sheep from the herd appeared to be sick. There were also reports of dead sheep in the area.
"They'll be coughing, kind of shaking the head like they're trying to loosen mucus up or something of that nature, and show some weakness," explained Douglas Nielsen, conservation and education supervisor at the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
This week the department confirmed the sheep are fighting two strains of pneumonia that have now made their way into other herds.
"It started in the River Mountains, just north of Boulder City, east of Henderson. Then we discovered it later in the fall in the El Dorado Mountains, the McCullough Mountains and Spring Mountain range," Nielsen said.
Now researchers are monitoring the sheep to see just how harmful the disease is and how fast it's spreading. For now, Nielsen said it's a matter of hoping nature will stop the disease from spreading to too many animals.
The Confairs and their neighbors, meanwhile, are hoping the animals they feel so deeply connected to aren't wiped out.
"I hope there's something they can do for them. It'd be horrible to lose our herd," said Dee Confair.
Nielsen says that the department of wildlife has been transferring bighorn sheep from Southern Nevada to Utah and Texas since the 1960s, because the population has been so abundant. That program is at a standstill until the pneumonia is under control. He says if the disease hurts the population too much, sheep from other states might need to be transferred back to Nevada.
Reports of sick or dead sheep should be made to the Nevada Department of Wildlife by calling the Las Vegas office at 702-486-5127.
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