Vaccine for bighorn sheep still 10 years away

Oct 26 2011 - 11:28am

PULLMAN, WAS. -- A Washington State University researcher said it will take at least 10 years to develop a vaccine that protects bighorn sheep from a disease carried by domestic sheep.

That time frame seems to undercut the reasoning behind legislation authored by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, seeking to delay a U.S. Forest Service plan to reduce domestic sheep grazing on the Payette National Forest and other federal land. Simpson added language to a funding bill for federal land management agencies that would prevent them from spending money through 2016 on any action that could lead to a reduction in domestic sheep grazing. He has said the five-year delay would protect sheep ranchers and give researchers time to perfect an experimental vaccine being developed at WSU.

Earlier this year, WSU professor Subramaniam Srikumaran successfully inoculated four bighorn sheep against a disease that has ravaged wild sheep herds across the West. Domestic sheep grazing on public land have transferred a pneumonia-like illness to wild bighorn sheep that has led to bighorn die-offs and lingering illness in many of the herds.

Last year, the Payette forest decided to protect bighorns by reducing domestic sheep grazing by 70 percent. The move was seen as a precedent-setting strategy likely to be exported to other forests as well as land administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

So the vaccine was hailed as breakthrough in the effort to recover long-struggling bighorn populations, including those in Hells Canyon and the Salmon River canyon. Some interpreted Srikumaran's work to mean a field-ready vaccine was just around the corner and steps to end domestic sheep grazing on public land used by bighorns would not be needed.

But in an Oct. 11 letter to the Wild Sheep Foundation that funds much of his work, Srikumaran said a viable vaccine won't be available in the next five years.

"Even if everything goes well, a vaccine that is ready for use in the field will not be available in less than 10-15 years from now," he said.

He noted the bighorns he inoculated needed several booster shots and it could take five years just to come up with a version that requires only one shot. Additional time would be needed to develop a version that could be delivered through food and yet more time for a pharmaceutical company to produce large quantities of the vaccine.

Others argue a vaccine should be developed that can be administered to domestic sheep so they are unable to pass disease to bighorns. That way domestic sheep could be inoculated, something seen as more practical than trying to vaccinate wild animals in rugged terrain.

Bighorn advocates, such as the Nez Perce Tribe and representatives from the Wild Sheep Foundation, say the Payette forest's plan that seeks to protect bighorns by keeping them and domestic sheep separated should be implemented. They also say the separation strategy that effectively ends domestic sheep grazing in areas home to bighorns, should be studied in other areas like the Nez Perce Forest and BLM land in the Salmon River Canyon.

"The burden shouldn't be on the bighorns. The bighorns are part of the natural landscape. Domestic sheep are a species that is foreign to the landscape," said McCoy Oatman, chairman of the Natural Resource Subcommittee for the Nez Perce Tribe Executive Committee. "The responsibility should be on the industry to make sure they have a safe product out on the landscape."

Margaret Soulen Hinson, of the American Sheep Industry Association and rancher from Weiser who runs sheep on the Payette said science sometimes advances quicker than people expect. For instance she said until Srikumaran's experimental vaccine such a breakthrough was unthinkable. She also doubted a five-year delay would harm wild sheep but said it could hurt the industry.

"I don't think bighorns are on the verge of blinking out," she said. "But an entire industry could lose almost 25 percent of its production in this country. The industry could blink out. I would say we are closer to blinking out than they are."

Oatman said bighorns are too important to the tribe to risk five more years of exposure to disease.

"We are losing part of our sacred circle and it's having an impact on us," he said. "We are not able to take our youth and tribal members out there and practice our treaty reserved rights."

Gray Thornton, president of the Wild Sheep Foundation at Cody, Wyo., said the five-year delay could set back sheep recovery much longer.

"You have an all-age die-off and it can be another 10 years of low lamb recruitment so a five-year time-out could be a 50-year time-out."

Simpson's staff was not immediately prepared to comment late Tuesday on the Srikumaran's 10 to 15 year estimate of the time it would take to develop a vaccine.

(c)2011 the Lewiston Tribune (Lewiston, Idaho)

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