Endangered bighorn sheep populations in the desert area have declined to a third of their 2016 numbers due to a disease introduced by domestic livestock, officials announced Friday.

“Die-offs of bighorn sheep of this type and magnitude that have occurred in the past have almost always been triggered by contact with domestic sheep or goats,” California Department of Fish and Wildlife Biologist Dr. Jeff Villepique said. Only 60 sheep were counted by CDFW and partner agencies this year, approximately one-third found in a helicopter survey in 2016.

Officials were first alerted to the die-off in December of last year when multiple reports of dead or dying desert bighorn sheep were confirmed by CDFW biologists in Whitewater Canyon and Mission Creek. Twenty-one bighorn carcass tissue samples were examined by pathologists from the California Animal Health and Food Safety labs.

A respiratory disease appears to be the cause of the deaths, officials said. Herds in other areas do not appear to be affected by the respiratory disease, officials said.

The die-off is further aggravated by the inability to administer medical treatment to the sick sheep as they live in remote locations and the animals are difficult to capture, officials said.

Southern California is home to an estimated 4,800 desert bighorn sheep that live in 64 herds. They are listed as a federally endangered species.

The population decline is expected to result in eliminating hunting tags for the Desert Bighorn Sheep Hunt Zone 5 for 2019, officials said. Usually two hunting tags are permitted for this hunt zone.

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