Anaconda's bighorn sheep population is not out of the woods yet.

The outbreak of pneumonia that caused wildlife authorities to kill

20 sheep has yet to be eradicated from the herd, which in spring numbered about 300.

The usually fatal respiratory disease, which was first detected in the Lost Creek-Anaconda population in August, continues to persist in some animals, according to a news release Monday from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, or FWP.

FWP spent the rest of August and all of September monitoring the herd and killing diseased sheep in an effort to protect healthy animals from exposure.

"Some of our helicopter surveys in mid-September gave us hope that we might have killed enough sick sheep to get ahead of the disease, but as the weeks continue we're still observing more symptomatic sheep and seeing some advanced cases of pneumonia in the samples we collect," said Ray Vinkey, FWP wildlife biologist. "We're also seeing pockets of healthy sheep, which is telling us that there is still some potential to keep the disease from reaching all the sheep, so our efforts aren't over yet."

Besides the 20 killed sheep, the state also recovered one that had died.

There are no known vaccines to

prevent pneumonia in wild sheep, or medications that can be practically applied to prevent the death of sick individuals, the release said. Instead, potential relief lies in protecting healthy animals from exposure.

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FWP crews will intensively monitor the herd through autumn and continue killing sheep exhibiting symptoms.

This means that big game hunters and others can expect to see occasional helicopters monitoring sheep in Lost Creek, West Valley, Blue-Eyed Nellie and Garrity Mountain areas this fall.

Vinkey said that 1,200 hunters drew coveted licenses to hunt bighorn rams in Hunting District 213 this fall, and their hunt will continue.

"We have enough rams to sustain the population and that's a good thing for ram hunters," said Mike Thompson, FWP regional wildlife manager. "Many hunters never draw a ram license, and most who do may never get another chance. Right now, it looks like we can manage the disease along with ram hunting, and still have enough rams left over for some to survive a full-blown pneumonia outbreak."

FWP closed the ewe season on

Sept. 24 after detecting more diseased sheep. The 30 hunters who drew ewe licenses were given the option of a license refund or to start the hunting season knowing that early closure was a possibility.

Thompson says that the closure was necessary because ewes are essential to the recovery of the population in the event that a large die-off occurs this fall and winter.

There are no known cases of humans or pets contracting pneumonia from wild sheep, but FWP cautions anyone who finds dead or sick bighorn sheep to leave the animal alone. FWP also encourages the public and hunters to immediately report any observations of sheep exhibiting symptoms of an illness or strange behavior.

For details, call FWP in Missoula at 406-542-5500.

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