01/29/2015 11:28 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT

Bighorn sheep in Similkameen threatened by mites

Bighorn sheep are in trouble in the Similkameen, and while biologists can't pinpoint the reason the number of sheep is dwindling, they suspect it has something to do with a mite called psoroptes.

"You don't want to get it. It's a really tiny microscopic little mite — you know a louse — that lives on skin," retired wildlife biologist Brian Harris told Daybreak South's Chris Walker.

"This particular variety likes big horn sheep and it causes them an intense itchiness and discomfort. They end up rubbing their hair right off. In some cases they get to the point where they rub themselves naked which is not a good thing to happen in January."

Harris said the mites cause the skin to deteriorate — making the sheep vulnerable to bacterial infections and other diseases.

He said the mites also lead to a loss in appetite, leaving the sheep emaciated.

A decade ago, there were at least 400 bighorn sheep in the Similkameen region. Today the population is half that.

Harris said there isn't enough research on what has caused numbers to drop.

"It's just one of the factors. It could be that this is the driver, but we don't know for sure."

Harris said biologists are now doing research on how prevalent the mites are and how it has affected the sheep.

To hear the full interview with Brian Harris, click the audio labelled: Bighorn sheep threatened by mites.