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Counting Sheep, Before BC’s Bighorns Disappear

In Churn Creek, the herd has lost four-fifths of its members due to disease tied to farmed sheep. Solutions exist, say advocates.

Kate Helmore 9 Aug 2022TheTyee.ca

Kate Helmore is a Tula Foundation Immersive Journalism fellow with The Tyee.

Hunter Lampreau stands on the edge of a cliff. Binoculars pressed against his eyes, he searches across the roaring Fraser, its sandy banks and the surrounding columns of naked, dusty-blond mountains sheared by razor-edged cliffs.

The Chilcotin sun is beating down on us, and sweat licks my forehead. As I swat at mosquitoes and pick cactus from the robber soles of my boots, Lampreau stands still. He is looking for tracks or movement. He is looking for signs of life.

Lampreau is a member of the Secwépemc Nation, and the Indigenous co-chair of the First Nations-BC Wildlife and Habitat Conservation Forum, a group dedicated to harnessing Indigenous knowledge for wild animals and protection of their environment.

We are in the depths of Churn Creek Protected Area, a 36,000-hectare grassland ecosystem located a three-hour drive north of Lillooet, B.C.

Lampreau’s mission is to find California bighorn sheep. But after two days of searching, he’s found nothing. And he’s hoping that doesn’t mean the worst.

“This is a century-old trail,” says Lampreau, staring at narrow, sandy pathways embedded into the landscape. “And yet it is empty. This is more than natural disturbance. This is disease.”

Suffocating on mucus

Churn Creek Protected Area is the centre of the Fraser River watershed. This watershed has historically been home to 2,500 California bighorn sheep, with Churn Creek home to 500. For 10,000 years they have lived perched on the cusp of cliffs, their hooves — which are lined with a tough, specialized toenail — gripping narrow ledges, and balancing 300-pound bodies.

But today, there are less than 800 sheep in the entire Fraser River watershed. Only around 65 ewes remain in Churn Creek. We do not know how many rams remain.

A close-up of the head of a Bighorn ram with curved horns.
The horns of a California bighorn ram can weigh up to 13.6 kilos, more than all the bones in their body combined. Photo by Greg Rensmaag.

A pneumonic bacterial disease called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae is to blame. The disease passes from domestic sheep to wild sheep, and it's a growing problem in B.C., where recent data estimated that 63 per cent of bighorns are infected.

M. ovi was first discovered in domestic sheep and goats in 1972. Held in the nasal cavity and sinuses, 30 per cent of B.C.’s domestic sheep carry the infection.

The disease rarely kills domestic sheep who, having evolved in tight confines with their own host of parasites, have a natural immunity. But the wild sheep are not so lucky.

Transmitted through nose-to-nose contact and occasionally by aerosols or droplets, it spreads to wild populations often during rutting season when wild rams jump fences, cross into pastures and mate with domestic ewes.

Once inside the body, the bacteria paralyzes cilia, the hair-like structures that help keep the lungs clear of mucus, dust and pathogens. It renders the lungs susceptible to pneumonia. The sheep suffocate on their own mucus, their battered carcasses found under rocks where they’d retreated in their final moments.

A single contact between a ram and an infected domestic sheep can trigger large, all-age die-offs, with some outbreaks wiping out 80 per cent of a herd.

But even when the sheep survive, the disease often lingers. About one third of ewes develop long-term, chronic infections that are then passed onto newborn lambs in the spring.

Over the course of many years a single chronically infected ewe might lead to the death of all the lambs in a herd. In 2017 and 2018, not a single lamb in Churn Creek survived.

Changing the trajectory

The battle to save the Churn Creek wild sheep began in February 2019. It was a frosty morning when a team of biologists, vets and volunteers descended on the park. They set up mobile testing sites under tents and sent out helicopters in search of wild sheep; the sheep were caught from the air using net guns and then transported, blindfolded, on long lines dangling around 15 metres below.

Once back at the testing site, volunteers cradled the sedated sheep while biologists swabbed their noses. If the results from the test were positive, a conservation officer shot them in the head.

Over five days the team caught 47 sheep. Twelve tested positive.

“We were protecting the health of the herd,” said Helen Schwantje, the lead wildlife veterinarian for the Government of BC and a sheep farmer.

“We’d had two years of no lambs. We had to change that trajectory.” Three years later, a crew returned to the Chilcotins, to capture and remove more infected sheep.

Tawny coloured lambs clamber up a steeply angled mountainside.
Bighorn lambs scale the steep, rocky slopes in the Chilcotin region of BC. Lambs are sociable animals, and frequently cross herds to play together. The transfer of a pneumonic bacterial disease called Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae from domestic sheep to wild ones like these is decimating their numbers. Photo by Greg Rensmaag.

But ultimately, these measures are just dealing with the symptoms of an issue, not the sickness.

In order to ensure the safety of wild sheep, they need to be firmly separated from their domestic cousins. There is no vaccine. The only way to combat the spread is through social isolation. In January 2020 sheep separation was implemented in Yukon — farmers must now have the animals in an approved enclosure, and test them annually for infection.

While B.C. has also launched a Sheep Separation Program, the province is facing an uphill battle.

This is partly due to B.C.’s Right to Farm Act, which stipulates that a farmer is not liable for any nuisance or disturbance from their operation, provided that it does not violate public health, pest management or the Environmental Management Act.

In other words, under the act, farmers essentially cannot be held responsible for the impact that their operations have on wildlife. Wild sheep advocates therefore have no legal avenues through which to mandate higher fences or tougher fences. Or require that farmers cull or isolate infected animals.

Perfectly adapted

But the battle to save the wild sheep continues. Which is why some 13 people have gathered at the Churn Creek campsite at dusk on a Friday evening in July, three years after the effort to save the wild sheep began.

The campsite is at a dilapidated barn, remnants of when this land was owned by the largest ranch in Canadian history — a ranch 520 times larger than the largest Indian reserve in B.C.

The sheep counters have come from various communities: 100 Mile House, Adams Lake Indian Band, Pitt Meadows and Victoria. Almost all wear camo. They are members of the Wild Sheep Society of BC, a non-profit dedicated to the enhancement of wild sheep and wild sheep habitat. The 1,300-member organization is the primary crowdfunder for the cause. Last year it raised close to $1 million.

Hunter Lampreau is sitting quietly at a picnic bench. The next day, he tells me, the team will disperse across the landscape, some hiking down hills and into ravines, searching the banks of the Fraser. Others will drive the road, periodically stopping and glassing — a hunting term for searching the landscape with binoculars.

The group plans to regroup that evening to compare notes.

The hope is that someone will spot a lamb — meaning that the cull in February 2019 had worked to eradicate the disease.

The count used to focus on the rams, says Lampreau. But these days, they focus on the lambs — the next generation.

“Spend time on the land and you kind of learn what’s important,” says Lampreau.

Three people walk on a grassy landscape flanked by mountains.
From left, Hunter Lampreau, Greg Rensmaag and Haleigh Parker walk across a field of hay, shadowed by a cliff face approximately 130 metres high. Photo by Kate Helmore.

The following morning, I climb into the backseat of Lampreau’s Tacoma truck and we start off across the landscape.

Technically, Lampreau is here to count on behalf of Qwelmínte Secwépemc, a collective of leadership from six Secwépemc communities (Adams Lake Indian Band, Little Shuswap Lake Band, Simpcw, Skeetchestn, Splatsin and Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc).

But conservation is Lampreau’s inheritance. He isn’t speaking to me as a spokesperson. And this count is more than just a job. His grandmother, Mary Thomas Sr., created the Salmon River Roundtable, a society that has restored kilometres of riparian area in the Shuswap and ended cattle grazing in the floodplain.

In keeping with his grandmother’s teaching, Lampreau sees wildlife as essential to our physical and spiritual survival.

Lampreau’s Indigenous name is Peyecw7, meaning “provider for his own.” His parents sent him to school with a .22-calibre rifle, and he was tasked with finding and bringing home dinner when the bell struck.

Wildlife also funded Lampreau’s geography and environmental studies degree. He spent his summers guiding wealthy Americans through the B.C. bush for 14 days at a time, often carrying out over 30 kilos of meat at the end of the trip. His customers paid the guide company between $60,000 to $80,000 for the service.

Lampreau uses hunting to connect with the land, his culture and his people’s history. Wildlife conservation, he says, is inextricably tied to First Nations rights. He points to the 2021 Blueberry First Nations case where a B.C. Supreme Court judge ruled that treaty rights to hunt and fish had been breached by development the provincial government had authorized.

“The decision was significant because it showed that unsustainable development in critical wildlife habitat… meant that First Nations no longer have access to food sovereignty,” Lampreau said.

As the day stretches on, we continue to wind across the land, periodically stopping the truck and glassing the mountainside.

Wild sheep are resilient, says Lampreau. They are perfectly adapted to this landscape.

For example, their horizontal pupils give them 360-degree vision, all the better to spot a prowling cougar. They can also jump six metres high and race up a sheer mountain face at 24 kilometres per hour. Their stomach is made of four parts, which means they can graze quickly and then, once in the safety of their rocky, steep, impenetrable cliff edges, re-chew and re-digest food — extracting every available nutrient and drop of moisture from the food.

That ideal adaptation is why the wild sheep is considered an indicator species: a healthy, thriving herd is indicative of a healthy, thriving ecosystem.

But as the sun descends in the sky, there is not a single bighorn in sight.

“Do I have my eyes closed?” Lampreau wonders aloud.

A cluster of Bighorn sheep includes three ewes and four lambs.
An increasingly rare sight, mother ewes watch over their lambs, camouflaged and protected by the long grass and sagebrush of the Chilcotin landscape. Photo by Greg Rensmaag.

At around 4 in the afternoon, a rancher agrees to let us search his property for sheep. The property spans 18,000 acres, half the size of Metro Vancouver.

We drive through pastures and down ravines. When we reach the corner of the property, we walk through a hay field the size of 30 football pitches. There are no sheep in sight.

Just 30 years ago, this land would have been covered in sheep, Lampreau says.

Lampreau leaves the rancher an offering of salmon, thanking him for use of his land.

Glimpse of hope?

“We’re throwing a Band-Aid on an axe wound,” said Greg Rensmaag, a hunter, and the secretary of the Wild Sheep Society of BC.

It’s Sunday morning and the volunteers have headed home. No one saw a sheep, let alone a lamb.

We’re hoping it’s not because of disease. It’s been a lush summer. The ground, which is normally parched, brown and sandy, is covered in grass. The sheep could therefore be more dispersed than usual.

Rensmaag, his 12-year-old son Connor, Lampreau, and a couple others have returned to the rancher’s field one last time. No one is willing to give up just yet.

Rensmaag is perched on the cliff side next to Lampreau. He thinks he sees tracks, but also thinks that after days of searching, his mind might be playing tricks on him. Connor stands next to him, peering through the spotting scope. On the cusp of being a teenager, Connor likes to hunt, but that’s not why he wants the sheep to survive. He wants to know that when he grows up, there will still be wild things and wild places.

“I want to be able to see sheep on this landscape in the future,” he said.

According to Rensmaag, culling sheep infected with M. ovi is, ultimately, just dealing with the symptom of the problem. Even if the disease is eradicated in wild populations, it will only return again via transmission from domestic sheep.

In April, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food committed to developing a framework that would protect the wild sheep from domestic sheep disease. The framework recommended farmers be educated and made aware of the disease so that they might volunteer to be part of the Sheep Separation Program.

When asked for comment on the progress of this framework, the Ministry of Agriculture and Food said that they were still in support and had hired a contractor to further the awareness and “extension activities” through the program.

But in Rensmaag and Lampreau’s eyes, this is not happening fast enough. Every delay costs lives. And these delays are because the needs of wild sheep are not being prioritized. For them, this de-prioritization is consistent with the province’s general approach to wildlife and conservation.

The B.C. government allocates $18 million to wildlife conservation every year. According to Lampreau, the bulk of that is spent on administration and staffing. And these staff are pulled thin. There are only 150 conservation officers in the province, who are expected to oversee the fisheries operations on the province's 25,725 kilometres of coastline, 20,000 lakes and 20 rivers. They are also expected to monitor and deal with all hunting, problem wildlife and environmental infringements in-land.

This leaves little time for forward-thinking, meaningful conservation, says Lampreau. Saving wild sheep, for example, has been largely left to volunteers and the funding has come primarily through fundraising done by the Wild Sheep Society of BC.

While few jurisdictions do wildlife conservation properly, the U.S. does at least allocate more funding. For example, the Pittman-Robertson Wildlife Restoration Act, signed by then-president Franklin Roosevelt in 1937, imposes an 11 per cent tax on firearms, ammunition and archery equipment. These funds are then distributed to state governments for wildlife projects. This means that regional biologists in the U.S. have access to greater funds, and more ability to predict and combat crises.

While U.S. bighorn populations still suffer from M. ovi die-offs, they have managed to turn the tide: in the 1950s and ’60s, there were around 25,000 sheep; now there are more than 85,000.

Three men lie in high grass peering through binoculars while another stands behind a telescope on a tripod.
From left, Hunter Lampreau, Connor Rensmaag, Eric Kukulowicz and Greg Rensmaag, nestled in the knee-high grass of a rancher's field, search the banks of the Fraser River for sheep. Photo by Kate Helmore.

Our watching and waiting and watching some more is declared done for this day. With no sheep in sight, we pack up and leave. I say goodbye to Raansmaag, Lampreau and Connor and begin the six-hour drive home.

An hour outside Clinton, B.C., Rensmaag calls. He’s spotted wild sheep on the mountainside, just off the highway and across from a rundown motel.

I drive to the spot, pull over, grab my binoculars and, at last, see Bighorn sheep: little black bodies with white tails and spindly legs slowly zig-zagging up the mountainside. There are around five ewes, accompanied by lambs barely five months old.

I watch them intently. They walk slowly and carefully. The mothers have formed a wall around the babies. After a few steps they turn around and gently press their noses against the nose of their lambs.

The sheep don’t seem to notice the SUVs, camper vans and logging trucks that roar past at 100 kilometres an hour. They don’t notice the railroad, its glistening steel tracks cutting across the banks of the Fraser, claiming the territory that these animals once called home.

Somewhere on the highway ahead of me, Lampreau is driving home. In his next project, he will work to protect the caribou in Revelstoke with a collective of technical staff from multiple First Nations and B.C. staff.

But working on caribou is difficult, and depressing. Caribou numbers are too low and the forces against them — deforestation, climate change, mass predation — are too high. Of a dozen ecologically distinct populations of caribou that roam from Jasper National Park to the Arctic tundra, one is extinct, six are endangered, three and threatened and two are of special concern. The window for proactive conservation has passed. The strategy is now reactive. In other words, concludes Lampeau, it would take a miracle to bring them back.

But the sheep are different. There is still time. Adept at balancing on the brink, the sheep have a fighting chance.

“There’s hope for the sheep,” Lampreau believes.  [Tyee]

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