Bighorn Sheep research project underway in South Okanagan

A research project hopes to gain more understanding about a mite that is killing off Bighorn Sheep

A research project underway on the Penticton Indian Band land is hoping to gain more understanding about a mite that is killing off Bighorn Sheep.

“The parasite was first discovered in Canada in 2011. Currently in Canada it is only in the Okanagan area, specifically in and around Penticton and the west side of the valley and in the southern portion,” said Dr. Adam Hering, veterinarian and PHD candidate with the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. “It is a significant concern of wildlife disease in this province.”

Psoroptes ovis is a miscroscopic mite found in wild and domestic sheep that causes the ear to crust and occasionally widespread skin lesions or mange. Hering said the parasite was connected to the collapse of at least one herd in the U.S. In the infested herd in the Penticton area, it is believed to be contributing to the population decline. Infested sheep causes reduced hearing which he said is believed to increase susceptibility to predators. It is trials objective to use a anti-parasitic that is normally used on treating parasites in cow herds to see if it will make an impact.

“By quarantining the sheep, treatment schedules and medical evaluations can be maintained without adding stress to the herd and potentially affecting the ability to heal,” said Hering.

The Penticton Indian Band natural resources department, the University of Saskatchewan and the B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations marked the beginning of the Bighorn treatment program on Friday. A total of 18 Bighorn Sheep being contained at an enclosure built on the PIB land, 12 of the animals have been randomly selected to be treated with the parasitic. They used five acres of land to erect a fence 2.4 metre high with a 1 metre overhang to isolate the infected sheep for treatment.

Hering said treated animals will initially be separated from untreated animals by the fence until the drug can be show to be effective. once that occurs, six of the treated animals will be combined with the untreated ones to demonstrate the length of re-infection protection.

The animals will be handled once monthly for five consecutive months following treatment to evaluate for the presence of the ear mites and determine the effects of treatment. Hering said capturing the Bighorn Sheep and penning them is less stressful and more humane than releasing and re-capturing.

PIB members, youth and students are the committed caretakers, who will also ensure they have food, water and will check on the sheep daily.

Hering said people are not susceptible to infection from the mites, but one of the main concerns is the Bighorn Sheep infecting domesticated sheep. One Bighorn Sheep herd is in close proximity of domesticated sheep near MacIntyre Bluff.

The Bighorn Sheep will be in the penned area for one year, however, Hering recommends the public to stay away as they are wild animals and they want to give them as much space as they can.

“Even those hiking n the west side of the valley, I would suggest they not head to the other side with the same clothing or boots. The mites can survive for two weeks so a good thing to do is wash your boots with Tea Tree oil which is an effective way to kill the parasite and not continue to spread it,” said Hering.