Bighorn sheep are a prized game animal for many hunters and unfortunately the species' herds are in decline throughout the West. Wildlife managers often blame mountain lions. To alleviate any unwanted sheep mortality, many states have initiated predator removal programs (killing lions and other wildlife). After all, every bighorn killed by a lion is one less sheep for a hunter to shoot and mount on his wall. Arizona for example, tried proposing a huge lion eradication program that would create "lion-free zones" within a national wildlife refuge to protect their state's bighorns. Research however, is showing that disease actually has a larger impact on bighorns than lions. Many of these illnesses are passed on by domestic sheep, which are often permitted to graze in bighorn habitat at a very low cost to ranchers.
In South Dakota, Game Fish & Parks wildlife manager John Kanta commented on the state's bighorn research, saying "We're looking specifically to see what lions are doing to the herd, but what we found was that perhaps a bigger issue is the pneumonia complex." The deadly pneumonia is caused by a bacteria called mycoplasma ovipneumoiae and is highly contagious among species of goats and sheep.
Kanta added, "We assumed that in the main Black Hills herd we didn't have any of that going on. Actually, as part of our research ... we found we are losing a lot of lambs to pneumonia up here."
Yet, despite this finding, South Dakota will continue its plan to wipe out nearly half of the state's mountain lion population from January 1st through March, 2012. This recreational hunting season will likely devastate South Dakota's lions all in the name of fun and the misguided belief that less lions means healthier ungulates.