In the early 80’s, Al heard a report that was issued out of the Chicago Zoo. It involved a Bighorn ewe giving birth to a sickly lamb. The lamb had pneumonia and was not responding to the routine course of treatment being given to it by the Zoo’s medical staff. An important point of interest to Al was that the antibody level in the lamb’s lungs was IgA deficient.
He began to wonder if it the endocrine/immune imbalance syndrome was at work. Line breeding can prove to be a dangerous thing. When family ties become too tight, Mother Nature usually throws the penalty flag.
Containment is an important factor in the development of the syndrome. Whether by enclosure walls, fences or highways, limiting a herd animal’s movements leads to continuous procreation by the dominant male or his sons. This incessant inbreeding will taint the herd’s gene pool and eventually cause the development of defects within individual herd member’s immune systems.
Al wondered if the Plechner Syndrome was also effecting the wild sheep population. It seemed highly probable, considering that highways, fences etc limited their wild migrations insuring that the dominant male and his male decedents controlled the breeding, thereby limiting the lineage of the herd and assisting the development of the syndrome.
This possibility led Al to volunteer to be the immunologist for a research group being created by the Bighorn Sheep Society of southern California. Jim De Forge performed the administrative functions of the group while Charley Jenner rounded out the group as the other veterinarian. Their duties included; determining population density, setting up water systems and springs for the sheep, and trying to discourage the wild burros from contaminating the water that the sheep drank and also stopping the burros from chasing the sheep out of the grazing lands Due to environmental pressures and the endangered habitat, they considered the best solution was the capture and relocation of the chosen sheep to a safer and healthier habitat.
They began by ‘taking a census’ to determine the current number of Bighorn Sheep in the highlands of southern California. Criss-crossing the beautiful San Gabriel Mountain range in helicopters, they counted and logged the various herds of sheep that populated the area. Yeah, it was a tough job but somebody had to do it.
The herds appeared to have good numbers and they seemed to be healthy, so the group’s next task was to create a study group. Using apple butter baits they were able to net 16 lambs and ewes and they relocated the chosen animals to Independence, California. Then, with the aid of a helicopter and a tranquilizer gun, they safely captured and transported two very large rams. To assure genetic diversity, all of the study group animals were gathered from separate herds in different locations throughout the range.
The transplant was a success. The results of Al’s “syndrome studies” indicated that there were enough genetic differences between the individual animals that this group of sheep would be a very compatible and healthy herd and, except for interference by predators and people, showed a potentially high survival rate.
Capture and relocation of wild sheep is extremely difficult and can be very dangerous to the sheep because they are very susceptible to “capture myopathy”. They are very skittish and, due to their extremely sensitive cardiovascular systems, the slightest fear or excitement can cause their blood pressure to sky rocket, rupturing blood vessels and causing the death of the animal. The Sierra Nevada Bighorn Sheep Captive Breeding Contingency Plan states emphatically…
There was a heartbreaking incident at the Lava Bed Sheep Preserve in Oregon, in the years following the California Study. A relocation mission that ended in tragedy. Due to the previous relocation successes in California, the Oregon Department of Fish and Game decided to use a capture-relocation as a media event. The sensitive relocation maneuver became a carnival occasion with dozen’s of newspaper, magazine and radio reporters and several television crews who were there to capture the capture for posterity.
With all the noise and commotion, the frightened sheep would not go under the nets. So all of those involved, experts and media alike, over reacted. They joined hands and drove the herd back into some caves. The less experienced drovers, not realizing the danger, became caught up in their duties grew louder and more boisterous causing the cornered herd to become extremely and tragically agitated. The disorganized chaos and pandemonium so terrified the sheep that all 200 head ended up dying from capture myopathy. They were literally scared to death.
To reduce the possibility of future calamities like this, Charlie Jenner and Al, flew up to the University of California at Davis, to work with Jim De Forge in establishing a PHD program which would address the dangers involved with Bighorn Sheep capture-relocation programs and to create a set protocol to follow to reduce the possibility of this tragedy reoccurring.
"Against the Odds, Given up for Dead", Spangenburg and Plechner, p.22, 2012