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Domestic Sheep Pathogen Deadly to Bighorn Sheep May Threaten Whitetail Deer, Bison, Moose, Caribou…and Cattle


June 15, 2018
posted in: News

Bozeman, Montana. June 13, 2018. The Bozeman, Montana-based Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) is alarmed that claims by scientists linked to the American Sheep Industry (ASI) Association have found that pathogens similar to Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M.ovi) carried by domestic sheep and goats, and known to wildlife professionals across the western United States and Canada, as well as northern Mexico, as potentially deadly to North America’s iconic wild bighorn and thinhorn sheep, may now have crossed species lines to threaten other wildlife and cattle, as well.

Dr. Margaret Highland a USDA/ARS/ADRU scientist who works with domestic sheep producers and their lobbying arm ASI, has reported that M.ovi, a bacteria linked to pneumonia related die-offs in bighorn sheep throughout western North America, has now been found in white-tailed deer, bison, caribou and moose. In a recent letter to the Utah Wool Growers Association Dr. Highland reported “In sampling and testing >1200 other wild hooved animals to date, including members of the Capreolinae subfamily (moose, caribou, white tailed deer, and mule deer), bison, and antelope for carriage of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, ADRU has identified this bacterium in multiple members of the Capreolinae subfamily and in a bison.” She added “Also, worth referencing are other peer reviewed publications that have already described Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae carriage in two other non-Caprinae species, including domestic cattle in Colorado…”

Adding concern to North America’s cattle industry, according to a May 28, 2018 AP report, an M.ovi-like pathogen Mycoplasma bovis has been found for the first time in cattle in New Zealand, resulting in a government plan to slaughter 150,000 cows at an estimated cost of $NZ 886 Million ($USD 616 Million). M.bovis, a bacterium found in Europe and the U.S., can cause cows to develop mastitis, pneumonia, arthritis and other diseases, according to the report.

Like Small Pox and other novel diseases brought to the New World by European settlers that proved devastating to Native Americans who had no immunity to these novel bacteria and viruses, M.ovi along with other pathogens carried by domestic sheep and goats can lead to deadly pneumonia in wild sheep.  

From an estimated high of 1.5 to 2 million bighorn sheep in Canada, USA and Mexico in the early 1800s, disease transmitted from domestic sheep and goats, competition for forage and over-harvest to feed a westward-growing populace reduced bighorn numbers to 25,000 by the mid-1950s. Due to aggressive restoration efforts funded by sportsmen/conservationists, bighorn numbers have increased more than three-fold to about 85,000 today, but the threat of disease and lack of federal land agency prioritization continues to inhibit bighorn restoration.

“Dr. Highland’s report that M.ovi, known to be linked to all-age die offs and reduced or zero lamb recruitment in bighorn sheep has now been found in white-tailed deer, bison and cattle is alarming”, stated WSF President & CEO Gray N. Thornton. “Recent news from Alaska state that M.ovi has been found in moose and caribou in Alaska, as well”, added Thornton. 

The Alaska Department of Fish & Game recently reported that M.ovi has been found in Dall’s sheep in Alaska. Dr. Highland’s research laboratory conducted the analysis on these Dall’s sheep. Alaska is home to 40,000 – 50,000 Dall’s sheep, representing 25% of all wild sheep in North America, and an estimated 1,400 domestic sheep and goats. 

“Dr. Highland’s findings indicate that M.ovi may have crossed species and now threatens not only bighorn sheep and thinhorn sheep, but cervids and bovids as well. This known threat to wild sheep, and now potentially new threat to deer, elk, caribou, moose and cattle, must be taken seriously”, added Thornton. 

Surprisingly, despite countless peer-reviewed studies and wildlife manager and veterinarian concurrence, there are some that still deny that domestic sheep and goats pose a disease threat to wild sheep. The standard WAFWA protocol when a conservation officer, game warden or state/provincial/tribal biologist finds a bighorn comingling with domestic sheep is to kill the bighorn to prevent it from becoming a potential vector spreading domestic-contracted pathogens to wild sheep. 

“Tell that dead bighorn that there is no disease threat”, concluded Thornton.  

WSF has expended millions of private-donor dollars on disease research at Washington State University (WSU) and elsewhere to identify and develop solutions to the domestic sheep/goat spillover of deadly pathogens to wild sheep. 

WSF urges the American public to contact their representatives to demand that the USDA direct appropriate financial and human resources to this disease threat, and that the USDA adopt policies to protect wild sheep, other wildlife, and cattle from these threatening and often-deadly domestic sheep and goat-borne pathogens.

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