A viral outbreak has decimated Grand Forks’ bighorn sheep population, according to a non-profit society dedicated to supporting sheep in the wild.
Peter Gutsche, director of the Wild Sheep Society of B.C., said more than 20 bighorns were found dead near the city Wednesday morning, Aug. 25.
The death toll is likely to rise as society volunteers continue to search the area, Gutsche added.
The suspected culprit is a hemorrhagic disease commonly known as Bluetongue, named after the swelling it causes in its oxygen-starved victims.
Bluetongue is a prolific killer of white-tailed deer in the United States and Southern Canada but is also known to kill free-ranging bighorns in the Okanagan and Kootenay areas, according to a BC Government fact sheet. The disease is spread by so-called “no-see-ums,” tiny biting flies that prefer the warm, dry temperatures that see bighorns congregating around watering holes every year between August and October.
Infected deer have been shown to lose their fear of humans and stop eating within a week of exposure. The disease causes extensive internal bleeding, causing infected animals to lose their balance. Death usually follows within two to three days of the onset of symptoms.
The virus does not affect humans but can infect some domestic animals. Domestic animals infected with the virus typically don’t develop Bluetongue disease, the fact sheet explained.