South Dakota chapter student earns award for sheep work

Graduate student Austin Wieseler earned the Outstanding M.S. Graduate Student Award from the South Dakota chapter of The Wildlife Society for his work on examining survival and mortality in the Badlands bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) herd.

Wieseler worked with National Park Service wildlife biologist Eddie Childers to help keep the herd healthy and thriving. “It’s one of the largest populations in the state of South Dakota now and the healthiest,” Childers said. 

In a three-year National Park Service-funded study, the researchers looked at diseases affecting the herd, particularly Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, which causes pneumonia and has devastated bighorn sheep herds in Custer State Park and Rapid City, South Dakota. 

While the Badlands herd has been previously exposed to pneumonia-causing pathogens, the sheep don’t shed the pathogen, and the population is still healthy and growing, Wieseler said. However, the sheep have not had an easy past.

Badlands bighorn sheep were eliminated in the 1920s, but in 1964, 22 Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were reintroduced. In the late 1990s, herd sizes crashed a result of Pasteurella, a bacterial disease.

As part of his research, Wieseler studied 23 sheep and determined a 74 percent survival rate in sheep making it through 6 months of age. “The goal is to get them to a year old,” Wieseler said.

Wieseler and his colleagues now hope to work with private landowners near the park to make sure that sheep and goats are at a lesser risk of coming on contact with the pneumonia-causing pathogen. 

Header Image: Masters student Austin Wieseler earned an award for his research on Badlands bighorn sheep.
©Sharon Mollerus