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Helicopter flights may be stressing B.C.’s bighorn sheep

Jan. 23, 2015, Vancouver - Wild bighorn sheep in southern B.C. are threatened by a new, devastating disease and the province is urging a helicopter company to help out by curtailing training flights over important habitat in a protected area, a freedom-of-information document reveals. The Vancouver Sun reports.


January 23, 2015
By The Vancouver Sun

Jan. 23, 2015, Vancouver – Wild bighorn sheep in southern B.C. are threatened by a new, devastating
disease and the province is urging a helicopter company to help out by
curtailing training flights over important habitat in a protected area, a
freedom-of-information document reveals.

The province is concerned that flights by Penticton-based HNZ
Topflight could be adding unnecessary stress, noting that “current
helicopter use in Snowy Protected Area conflicts directly with rutting
(breeding) areas and season and migration routes to winter ranges.”

HNZ
offers a three-week mountain flying course for about $50,000. About 250
to 300 experienced pilots take the course annually, mostly from the
Canadian military, RCMP and search-and-rescue agencies, the company
says.

Surveys of the Ashnola/Similkameen sheep population show a
50-per-cent reduction from 485 animals from 2006 to 2013, according to
an “information note” for Environment Minister Mary Polak. “A highly
contagious disease, new to Canada (psoroptic sheep mange) is now
affecting the population and is of significant concern.”

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First
discovered in the population in 2011, the mange turned up in 2012 in
isolated 25,889-hectare Snowy Protected Area about 30 kilometres
southwest of Keremeos.

HNZ has a single provincial permit,
expiring in 2018, to operate not just in Snowy, but Cathedral Provincial
Park, South Okanagan Grasslands Protected Area, Vaseux Protected Area,
and White Lake Grasslands Protected Area, all in the same region.

The
document describes how “mites live and feed on the skin surface, which
can cause heavy crusts in and around the ears and over the host’s body
and effects to bighorn can include sever itchiness, decreased appetite,
weight loss, anemia, emaciation, hearing loss and secondary bacterial
infections.”

The disease has led to the die-off of at least one
herd in the U.S. and treatment options are limited and largely
unsuccessful, it says.

The province has reduced hunting of the
sheep, launched a study into the disease’s impact locally, and taken
steps to reduce stress caused by low-level helicopter flights.

Research
shows that helicopter disturbance can result in decreased foraging,
abandonment of habitat, increased heart rates by up to 3.5 times, and
increased stress hormones affecting the immune system, according to the
document, dated Sept. 4, 2014.

“Current helicopter use in Snowy
Protected Area (established in 2001) conflicts directly with rutting
(breeding) areas and season and migration routes to winter ranges.”

Based
on recommendations from the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural
Resource Operations, BC Parks started discussions with HNZ “to explore
potential changes to their flight activities to reduce additional
stressors to the sheep,” the document says.

Tim Simmons, chief
flying instructor with HNZ (the parent company of Canadian Helicopters),
said from Penticton on Thursday that helicopter training has occurred
in the area since 1951.

He said he can understand why the public
might find it odd that a helicopter company has been allowed to operate
in protected areas important to wildlife.

“We completely
understand that sentiment,” he said. “The features in the Snowy area are
absolutely classic textbook saddles and cirques, the altitude up to
8,500 feet. If you are going to rescue someone, you’d better be able to
do it in all parts of Canada and not just the Prairies.”

About three or four days of the course are spent in the Snowy area
before the pilots progress to the more challenging peaks of Cathedral
park for another two days. The rest of the time is spent in the other
three protected areas in which the company is permitted.

“The
natural progression is what we need, therefore Snowy is an integral part
of the flying course,” he said. “You could argue there are other areas
we could go to, but they are 100 to 200 miles away and it wouldn’t then
be economical to put on the course.”

Simmons argued that the sheep
in Snowy have become accustomed to the training flights over the years
and are not stressed as sheep would be experiencing helicopters for the
first time. “If you asked the bighorn sheep, how many generations have
been listening to helicopters? Much like deer in Penticton, they’re
completely used to what they see and hear in their environment.”

Due
to the sudden presence of mange, the company has agreed to avoid an
area that the province considers important to lambing. “We’ve had some
restrictions imposed on us,” he said, noting talks are continuing with
government on the issue.

“We’re concerned about the animals as
much as anyone else and, honestly, have more experience with those
animals than the general public. The Ministry of Environment has stated
to us that in no way do they consider the helicopters are to blame for a
mite that the sheep have.”

Provincial wildlife veterinarian Helen Schwantje was unavailable to comment on Thursday.

The
training course employs the Eurocopter EC-120 helicopter, which is
considered especially quiet, and the Bell Jet Ranger, Simmons said.

A
1990 study in the Journal of Wildlife Diseases says the disease was
present in bighorn sheep across Wyoming in the late 1800s. It surfaced
again in 1942, 1963 and 1983. “Reports of scabies in bighorn sheep are
increasing. Considering the impact scabies had on wild sheep
historically this should be cause for concern.”

The disease was
responsible, in part, for reducing a desert bighorn sheep herd in the
San Andres Mountains of New Mexico to one ewe from more than 200
individuals from 1978 to 1997.

Kevin Hurley, a former Wyoming
state biologist who is now conservation director with the Wild Sheep
Foundation, said he believes the biggest threat from psoroptic mange is
to weaken wild sheep to other risks, including potentially deadly
respiratory bacteria from domestic sheep.

“One radio-collar ewe I
was following suffered tremendous hair loss and during a real cold snap
she basically froze to death,” he added. The best defence is to maintain
healthy sheep on good habitat, just as a humans in good physical
condition are better able to avoid sickness, he said.

The mites
are most easily spread during the fall rut, when bighorn sheep butt
horns, nuzzle and generally come into close contact with each other, he
noted.

The B.C. government established Snowy Protected Area to
protect the Okanagan Ranges, including its dry grassland valleys and
alpine meadows supporting a “provincially significant herd of California
bighorn sheep.”


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