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Zion National Park makes unusual request of visitors

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By David Strege, BNQT

Those visiting Zion National Park in Utah are being asked by park officials to report if they happen to hear a bighorn sheep coughing excessively.

Biologists with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources are worried about a possible outbreak of a deadly strain of pneumonia after two sickly bighorn sheep had to be euthanized in the last couple of weeks, the St. George News and The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

A female bighorn sheep was observed coughing by a park employee on July 20 and was so sick it had to be euthanized. Tests revealed it was suffering from bacterial pneumonia.

"At this point, we don't know a whole lot, except that there are a couple of sick animals," DWR bighorn sheep biologist Jace Taylor told the Tribune. "It's hard to say what will happen from here. It could turn out to be nothing at all, or it could be that, yeah, we have animals die."

[post_ads]Biologists want to track the illness to determine how much it has already spread. The amount of the population affected can vary from 20 percent to 100 percent with the median mortality rate based on past events being 48 percent, the St. George News reported.

Pneumonia is relatively common in bighorn sheep. The animals are usually able to fight it off themselves if it is not a deadly strain. The pneumonia that the sheep have is not dangerous to humans.

This is the first case of pneumonia they have seen in the Zion herd. Approximately 500 of the 800 bighorn sheep living in Zion live at the slick rock areas on the east side of the park, [Zion spokeswoman Aly] Baltrus told the Associated Press.

Pneumonia can spread quickly and easily among the sheep. They can contract it from nose-to-nose contact or when one coughs on another, Jace Taylor, a bighorn sheep biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, told the Associated Press.

With so many more tourists than employees in the park, officials figured they'd reach out to the public for help in locating sick bighorn sheep.

"You can hear it from a distance," Baltrus told AP. "It's very much like a human cough."

Top photo courtesy of Zion National Park. Second photo is from Wikimedia Commons.

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