A close call for New Mexico bighorn sheep after bacteria sweeps through herd

New Mexico News

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – A well-known sheep herd in New Mexico has biologists relieved and scratching their heads after surviving an extremely deadly bacteria. The Rio Grande Gorge bighorn sheep herd is a favorite among river rafters, hikers and hunters alike.

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“I think it’s probably the most visible herd in New Mexico. I like to say if you’re standing on the high bridge at Taos and you don’t see a bighorn — you’re just not looking hard enough,” said Eric Rominger, a bighorn sheep biologist with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish.

Rominger says the large and thriving herd was almost completely killed off. “The big bane in wild sheep in North America has been an old world disease, known as mycoplasma ovipneumonia which causes severe pneumonia in wild sheep herds,” Rominger said.

He says it is carried by domestic sheep meaning the herd most likely came in contact with others in the area. “There’ve been die-offs in the west where 100% of the wild population has died,” Rominger said.

When the bacteria hit the herd last year, Rominger feared the worst that the herd Game and Fish, along with the Taos Pueblo, spent the last 15 years rebuilding would die off but somehow, while the bighorn sheep did get sick, they all survived. “That’s been the amazing thing and I don’t think anybody would’ve bet we were going to have no adult mortality when you see these sheep coughing and coughing,” Rominger said.

Now, he says the herd appears healthy and it has dozens of young lambs and is as big as ever meaning they’ll likely be around for people to enjoy for many years to come. “We think that herd sits in there between 350 and 400,” Rominger said.

Rominger says the disease could come back around but they’re hopeful it was a one-time scare. He says they’ll be testing sheep over the next few months to make sure the bacteria is gone.

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