JACKSON (WNE) — Bighorn sheep on the National Elk Refuge likely carry a virus that’s capable of spreading to humans, officials warned Friday, asking the public to stop letting wild sheep lick their cars.
“The bighorn sheep on the National Elk Refuge have become habituated to people and regularly approach vehicles to lick salt and minerals from them,” Elk Refuge officials explained Friday in a news release. “The transfer of saliva to vehicles not only spreads the disease throughout the herd, with multiple sheep often licking the same location, it also puts people at greater risk for contracting the virus.”
The pathogen of concern is known as “orf virus,” or contagious ecthyma. Infected animals develop “scabby sores” around their mouths, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Humans typically develop lesions on their hands.
Humans are able to acquire the disease from animals, and allowing sheep to lick vehicles increases that risk.
Although refuge officials didn’t return a request for comment by press time Friday, their announcement said “a lot” of bighorns living on Miller Butte appear to be infected.
While wild sheep typically recover from visual clinical symptoms in three to six weeks, they become more prone to other infections.
Pneumonia has historically caused large die-offs in the Jackson Herd, which occupies the Gros Ventre Range east of Jackson Hole. Allen said the presence of pneumonia in the herd may have weakened their immune systems enough for an orf virus outbreak. Alternatively, she said, the orf virus may weaken the animals’ immune systems and thus make them more susceptible to a pneumonia outbreak.