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DEADWOOD | South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks officials say they are devastated by the deaths of five bighorn sheep in the past few weeks, diminishing the herd of 26 of the majestic animals transplanted last year from Canada.

Though the animals have died in a variety of unrelated ways, state game officials worry most over the loss of at least one to a form of pneumonia that can infiltrate a bighorn herd.

“We’ve really lost a bunch of bighorns up there in the past few weeks from some off-the-wall causes,” Regional Wildlife Manager Trenton Haffley said late last week.  “We can put a finger on what happened with each, but it’s just been one after another with sheep dying up there.

“It’s been a rough month for that Deadwood herd,” he added.

After nearly two years of planning and coordination with the Canadian government, state GF&P staffers, aided by 60 volunteers, captured one 2-year-old ram, 23 ewes and two lambs in Alberta in February 2015, then made a 36-hour, 1,300-mile trek back to South Dakota before releasing the bighorns in the Black Hills backcountry near Deadwood.

The first bighorn died Oct. 13 when it fell off a cliff on property owned by the Gilt Edge Mine near Strawberry Hill south of Deadwood, Haffley said.

“Bighorn sheep love walking along cliffs, but unfortunately we find sheep every year that have fallen off cliffs,” he said.

The second of the bighorn fatalities occurred recently after the GF&P had received several reports over a six-week period of a ewe experiencing difficulty breathing, Haffley said. On Oct. 29, conservation officers located the bighorn in the Days of ’76 Campground on Deadwood’s north side, then darted the animal so they could determine what was wrong, he explained.

“There wasn’t anything we could do,” Haffley said of the animal, which had something wrong with its trachea. “They let her recover from the drug and she walked off but ended up dying a couple weeks later.”

Conservation officers took a blood sample from the dead bighorn, then sent it to a laboratory in Washington state, Haffley said. Results received last Tuesday confirmed the ewe was suffering from mycoplasma ovi-pneumonia, a deadly bacterial disease that is often the primary cause of pneumonia in sheep, he said.

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The third bighorn died Nov. 3 and was found near the “Welcome to Deadwood” sign leading out of Boulder Canyon, Haffley said.

“She had lost teeth on her top jaw, which was packed with grass and other vegetation,” he explained. “It apparently became infected over time and we assume she died from a bacterial infection.”

On Nov. 7, conservation officers found another dead bighorn on the Gilt Edge Mine property in what may have been the strangest tragedy in the recent spate of deaths.

“For whatever reason, this ewe decided to jump a 6-foot woven-wire fence that surrounded a holding pond,” Haffley said. “She hit the plastic lining the pond, slid into the pond and drowned.”

Finally, the fifth bighorn death occurred last Monday afternoon near the junction of Highways 85 and 14A leading into Deadwood. After the local police were notified of an injured animal by the side of the road, GF&P staffers responded to the scene, examined the “very, very old ewe,” and determined it needed to be euthanized to prevent further suffering, Haffley said.

A necropsy on that animal, “one of the oldest I’ve ever had my hands on,” was performed by Haffley in Rapid City later Monday and tests were sent to the Washington diagnostic lab, he said. Results of those tests are pending, Haffley added.  

For GF&P conservation officers devoted to establishing a new herd of bighorns in the Northern Hills, the results of the tests on the fifth fatality are extremely concerning after the first confirmed death due to the highly potent strain of pneumonia, Haffley said.

“It didn’t sink in for a day, but for me, I have a special spot for sheep,” he said. “I really, really like bighorn sheep, so it’s been a really rough week.

“We have our fingers crossed,” he added. “But there is always the possibility that this is one of those highly virulent strains that wipes out everything.”

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