Featured photo: NPS / Jacob W. Frank

Note: This press release came via the Wild Sheep Foundation (www.wildsheepfoundation.org.)

On March 13, the Wild Sheep Foundation (WSF) was notified by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) officials that Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (commonly referred to as M.ovi) has been documented in at least four Dall’s sheep and two mountain goats in Alaska.

This represents the first time M.ovi bacteria have been found anywhere in free-ranging Dall’s or Stone’s sheep. M.ovi is not endemic to wild sheep or mountain goats in Alaska; transmission from domestic sheep and goats is the only source of this pathogen.

Based on laboratory analysis of 136 hunter-harvested Dall rams from Alaska, four rams taken in Game Management Unit 13A in the Talkeetna Mountains tested positive for M.ovi DNA from nasal swabs, while two mountain goats live-captured on the Kenai Peninsula also showed antibodies indicating past exposure to M.ovi, out of 39 mountain goats sampled.

M.ovi bacteria have been implicated in significant die-offs of bighorn sheep in the lower 48 states and southern Canadian provinces. Domestic sheep and goats are known to commonly carry this respiratory pathogen. Some strains of M.ovi are more virulent than others; at this time, specific strain-typing of these Alaskan M.ovi bacteria has not been established or is not publicly-available. No vaccine against M.ovi infection exists, and management options are extremely limited.

After this auspicious news broke, WSF President and CEO Gray N. Thornton made this statement:

“This alarming news out of Alaska confirms what many wild sheep conservationists have dreaded, that a domestic sheep and goat pathogen has somehow made its way into Dall’s sheep range in Alaska, home to more than 25 percent of the wild sheep in all of North America. The Wild Sheep Foundation, our Alaska WSF Chapter, state and federal wild sheep managers, and resident and non-resident Dall’s sheep stakeholders have long hoped for cooperation and action by domestic sheep and goat producers and the Alaskan agencies charged with safeguarding and managing this invaluable wildlife resource. Our worst fears are now confirmed.”

Kevin Kehoe, President of the Alaska WSF Chapter added his regional perspective to this issue:

“We have tried to work closely with the State Veterinarian, the domestic sheep and goat industry, and individual producers here in Alaska, to document the presence and prevalence of M.ovi in Alaska’s estimated 1,500 to 1,800 domestic sheep and goats. The Alaska WSF has committed to paying for the testing of domestic sheep and goats in Alaska, and replacement of positive animals that are culled, but participation has been slow in coming, and we continue to deal with significant denial of the risk of contact by not only producers but industry representatives and Alaskan regulatory agencies, as well.”

Dr. Peregrine Wolff, wildlife veterinarian for the Nevada Department of Wildlife and immediate Past-President of the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians (AAWV), has dealt with repeated die-offs of bighorn sheep in her home state of Nevada, and has been involved in pneumonia-related bighorn die-offs across the West. As a current WSF Board member, Dr. Wolff was saddened by the news:

“It is very unfortunate that Alaska now has documented a problem that has plagued bighorn sheep in many western jurisdictions for decades. Having dealt with bighorn and mountain goat pneumonia in our herds in Nevada, we feel very badly for Alaska, but this issue must be confronted head-on.”

Considering this long feared and now officially documented incident, Gray Thornton added this call to action to the North American conservation community:

“Disease surveillance must be stepped up in thinhorn sheep jurisdictions (Alaska, Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia). It is long past time to call out the domestic sheep and goat industry for their reluctance to acknowledge this pathogen transfer and subsequent respiratory disease as the major challenge it is for wild sheep conservation and management.” 

The Wild Sheep Foundation, Alaska WSF, and wild sheep conservationists everywhere call on Alaska Governor Walker and Alaska’s legislature to enact legislation requiring mandatory M.ovi testing for all domestic sheep and goats in Alaska. Stated Thornton: “We will no longer accept a ‘wait-and-see’ approach; this wildfire has been ignited, and it could sweep across thinhorn sheep range in the North. More than a quarter of all wild sheep in North America call Alaska home, and now they are at risk.”

The Alaska WSF Chapter is asking anyone that has hunted Alaska, plans to hunt Alaska one day, or simply supports healthy wildlife populations now and in the future to take five minutes to send an email expressing support for House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 23. This resolution, initially tabled by Representative Josephson, provides guidance on efforts to protect livestock and wildlife from disease and pathogens, and directs state agencies to engage in actions to prevent the spread of those diseases and pathogens to at-risk wildlife and domestic animals.

How you can help

This is a critical issue that WSF and its chapters, affiliates and partners have been dreading for years. The hunting and conservation community must get involved if we are to prevent large-scale die-offs in our thinhorn sheep populations as have been seen in bighorn range over the past century. To become involved, send emails to House.Resources@akleg.gov and rep.andy.josephson@akleg.gov to express your support for HCR 23. Please also CC Alaska WSF Chapter Vice-President, Aaron Bloomquist, at bloomya@hotmail.com so they can keep track of public support for this imperative.

In your email, please include:

Your name and where you live

Your sheep hunting experience

Why wild sheep matter to you

Why sheep hunts in Alaska are an important economic driver

Why Alaskan wild sheep matter