Owners of domestic sheep and goats won’t have to get permits for their animals for now, though members of the state Board of Game urged them to continue voluntary disease testing.
The Board of Game voted Thursday to take no action on Proposal 64, which would have removed domestic sheep and goats from the state’s “clean list” and required owners to obtain individual permits for each animal, complete disease testing and build double fencing around the pens if the animals are kept within 15 miles of established sheep habitat. The proposal, submitted by the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, cited concerns about the possible communication of a bacterium, mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, from domestic sheep and goats to wild Dall sheep and mountain goats, which are popular trophy hunting animals in the state.
“This proposal will be a good start to prevent the spread of disease in to wild sheep populations,” the group wrote in the proposal. “Hobby farming is growing rapidly in Alaska including areas that would be considered Dall sheep habitat. Entire populations of bighorn sheep (in the Lower 48) are presently being eradicated due to these unintentional disease transmissions.”
The proposal initially arose in March 2016, provoking and outcry in the agricultural communities of Alaska, primarily on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. To give the interest groups a chance to work together, the Board of Game voted to table the discussion about the proposal, delaying it to the November 2017 meeting.
Since then, there has been meaningful work between the Alaska agricultural community and the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation to find a solution that wouldn’t require all individual animals to be permitted or for the owners to build expensive fences, wrote Alaska Farm Bureau executive director Amy Seitz in a comment to the Board of Game.
“Sheep and goat owners, the Alaska Farm Bureau, individual veterinarians and the Office of the State Veterinarian have not only spent time educating themselves on the issue, but also taking time out of their normal, busy work load and covering costs to voluntarily participate in a study to gather facts specific to Alaska and the prevalence of mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (Movi) in the state,” she wrote.
The proposal was a shock to sheep and goat owners when first proposed and was based on an ongoing situation in the Lower 48, in which bighorn sheep populations have been devastated by respiratory diseases sourced to domestic animals. However, Alaska is at far less risk because of the distance between Dall sheep and mountain goat habitat and most domestic sheep and goat operations and the lack of open graze operations in the state, Seitz wrote.
Hundreds of sheep and goat owners wrote to the board asking the members to take no action as well, saying they wanted to be able to keep animals for the purpose of food production and removing the animals from the clean list would be a burden on small farms. Many said they already test their animals for diseases and depend on them as part of their lifestyles or for additional income.
The board members cited the weight of public comment as part of their decision, saying they were aware of how controversial the decision would be. They agreed to take no action on the proposal but charged the Wild Sheep Foundation and sheep and goat owners to continue voluntary testing and report back in a year to show that the communication of disease was still under control.
Board member Larry Van Daele said he appreciated the work that both sides had put in throughout the process, as well as the efforts of the department, and charged the sheep and goat owners to continue the testing efforts.”
“If this board takes no action here, what that will essentially do is take away that threat, that fear that’s been hanging over their heads,” he said. “But it also puts a lot of responsibility on doing what (the sheep and goat owners) said (they) were going to do.”
Board chairman Ted Spraker said he was very concerned about the potential for communication of disease and wanted a more formal report on the testing efforts in about a year. Preliminary testing of domestic sheep and goats showed a higher percentage of farms infected than he would have guessed, which was troubling, he said.
“If this (disease) falls through the cracks, it’s going to be on us in this room right now who let this happen in our state,” Spraker said. “I don’t want to be part of that.”
Board member Karen Linnell pointed out that of the larger sampling, only about 4 percent of animals had turned up positive for mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, although those animals were spread across about a quarter of the total farms tested.
“Just because we’re taking no action on this proposal doesn’t mean we don’t care what’s happening,” she said. “…(All sides of the debate) all want the same thing. They want healthy populations. It’s just getting past that divide.”
An Alaska Department of Law memo clarified that the Board of Game does have authority over which animals are listed on the “clean list,” but cannot require permits for them — that’s the purview of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, through the Office of the State Veterinarian.
The board members agreed that they wanted to see continued testing and data collection and public education, especially among domestic goat and sheep owners, but they also said they wanted to see better controls over the import of domestic goats and sheep when they enter the state.
Bruce Dale, the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation within the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said the department was looking at hiring another veterinarian to help screen wildlife for diseases.
“This is a new era for Alaska, with changing climate and the increasing transportation of everything,” he said. “… We realize that this is a change for our department, we have to increase and be more vigilant in our efforts, not only do we have to protect our borders, but it’s also what we’re going to do with (the disease).”