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Disease spreading through bighorn sheep herd at Zion

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Posted at 10:22 PM, Apr 04, 2013
and last updated 2013-04-05 00:22:20-04

MOAB, Utah - There are nearly 700 bighorn sheep leaving in the area in and around Zion National Park, but park rangers say a disease is spreading through the herd and now they're warning park visitors not to get too close.

Bighorn sheep often get close to hikers on the trails, but park rangers say to stay away because many of the sheep are sick with an infectious disease.

"It's something that's often called sore mouth because that's what it does. It gives these sheep a sore mouth," said Fred Armstrong, Zion National Park Chief of Natural and Cultural Resources.

The disease is a virus caused by environmental stressors like overpopulation. Armstrong says the disease mostly affects the lambs and is rarely fatal.

"This is something that is best to just let it run its course. Animals will develop some natural antibodies to it," he said.

Wildlife specialists say that in rare cases, the virus can be transferred from animal to human. But they'd have to be in very close contact, something visitors shouldn't be doing anyway.

"We encourage our visitors to come and enjoy and observe. But under no case should anyone be handling wildlife in any national park," Armstrong said.

Armstrong estimates that the disease will run its course in two to four weeks, but visitors may see infected animals for months as it moves through the population.