Their death sentence? Wandering far enough north that they might have encountered a domestic sheep farm.
“They may have come into contact with domestic bighorn sheep,” said ODFW spokeswoman Michelle Dennehy. “And basically under our plan we don’t allow any interaction because of concerns about disease. They could bring it into the herd and kill off the whole herd.”
The releases were part of a broader effort to restore the wild bighorn populations in Oregon. But domestic sheep carry a pathogen that is a known bighorn killer. Before reintroduction efforts began, the last wild bighorn seen in Oregon was in 1905. They were wiped out by a combination of hunting and – you guessed it – disease from domestic sheep.
Dennehy said state officials didn’t know about the domestic sheep operation north of John Day Fossil Beds when they released the bighorns into the Branson Creek area. The threat of the domestic sheep disease killing off the entire herd of bighorn is so big, though, that Dennehy said even though officials don’t have “any indication” the bighorn were exposed, they still had to be killed.
Autopsy results have not been released yet to show whether the bighorns were actually infected.