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December 17, 2014

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Virus outbreak affecting Zion’s bighorn sheep; park visitors urged to steer clear of animals

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In this 2009 file photo, desert bighorn sheep that live in the River Mountains in Boulder City make their way down to Hemenway Park in the morning.

Zion National Park

Bighorn sheep in Zion National Park are displaying symptoms of a virus, and park officials warn the disease can be transmitted to visitors who venture too close to the animals.

National Park Service officials, in a news release issued Thursday, said sore mouth disease, or contagious ecthyma, was thought to be responsible for an illness observed among Zion’s bighorn sheep population. Since the disease can be transmitted to humans through direct contact with infected sheep, park officials are reminding visitors to steer clear of wildlife.

“People should never be approaching wildlife at Zion National Park, so we do not expect to have any issues with visitors contracting this disease from the bighorn sheep,” said Jock Whitworth, superintendent of the park, which is about 165 miles northeast of Las Vegas.

Sore mouth disease is common in wild and domestic sheep and goats. It is spread from ewes to lambs and can manifest itself in sores around the mouths of lambs and cause inflammation of the ewes’ teats. The sores typically disappear in two to four weeks. The disease, which is rarely fatal, causes affected lambs to refuse to suckle because of their sore mouths.

Since the incubation period is one to two weeks, visitors could possibly see sick animals for many months as the disease moves through the park’s bighorn sheep population.

Park officials said there is no cure for the disease in sheep. Treatment is not viable because of the number of animals involved, officials said.

“It is hard to watch a disease spread through a population, but we need to let nature take its course,” Whitworth said.

People exposed to the virus, especially those with poor immune systems, can develop sores on their hands after touching the saliva or open sores of infected sheep. In humans, the sores are painful but usually heal on their own without treatment. To date, officials said, there have been no reported human cases.

If visitors see a dead or dying bighorn sheep within Zion National Park’s boundaries, they are asked to notify park dispatch at 435-772-3256.

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