Bighorn sheep treatment project underway in south Okanagan

A collaborative research project is underway in the south Okanagan which aims to gain understanding about a disease currently threatening local bighorn sheep.

The Penticton Indian Band is partnering with the University of Saskatchewan and the province to isolate and treat bighorn sheep for psoroptic mange, a disease that causes patchy wool and skin conditions along with weight loss, loss of appetite and ear infections.

The disease is caused by a non-burrowing mite and has been linked to increased mortality rates among infected herds.

"Animals that are infected have a lower chance of survival essentially because of this parasite," said Dr. Adam Hering, a veterinarian and PhD candidate from the University of Saskatchewan working on the project.

"The mite seems to be something that requires attention if we want to protect herds from decline."

18 infected sheep currently being treated

Psoroptic mange is currently limited to the south Okanagan in Canada in an area west of Penticton — it was first detected in the area in 2011.

Hering said as part of the trial, 18 infected bighorn sheep are now being treated for the disease at an enclosure built on Penticton Indian Band land. 

The animals are being given an injection normally used to treat parasites in cow herds. Hering said researchers will inject some of the animals and not others initially to determine whether the drug is effective in treating the disease in bighorn sheep.

"One of the things that's special about this drug ... is it has a long duration of action. The drug could potentially last for four or five months and keep the animal clear of disease for that whole period." said Hering.

Hering describes the project as "hugely collaborative" and has involved the support of the Penticton Indian Band along with donations of time and money from the community.

'An important step for us'

"The trial is an important step for us to understand how and if the disease may be treated," said Cailyn Glasser, an ecologist with the Penticton Indian Band's lands and natural resources department.

"From biological, wildlife management perspective, this could provide an important management option for us in the future," she said.

Hering hopes by the end of the project the herd will be clear of disease.

"When we started, every animal we caught had the disease and hopefully by the conclusion of this project, every animal will have been treated," he said.

The treatment program will take place over the course of one year.

With files from Radio West.