Some of Alaska’s wild sheep and goat populations are infected with a bacterium game managers and hunters have been nervous about, though the implications aren’t quite clear yet.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced March 20 that several tests on Dall sheep and mountain goats from various regions of Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, came back positive for a bacterium called Mycoplasm ovipneumoniae, called M. ovi for short. Certain types of the bacterium have been responsible for outbreaks of fatal respiratory diseases in bighorn sheep populations in the Lower 48, but Alaska’s sheep have been relatively clear of respiratory diseases. The department is still analyzing samples, according to the announcement.
“The presence of M. ovi in an animal does not mean it is or will become sick,” the March 20 release states. “More than 100 known Mycoplasma species exist, including M. ovi, and evidence suggests that virulence — the ability to infect and cause disease — varies between Movi strains. The ability of M. ovi to cause pneumonia is impacted by multiple stressors including poor nutritional condition and/or environmental factors such as extreme weather. Both domestic and wild sheep and goats can carry the bacteria while showing no signs of illness.”
Infected animals came from a variety of locations in the state, including the Talkeetna Mountains, the Brooks Range and the Kenai Peninsula. In the most recent tests, nine animals tested positive for M. ovi, though it’s not the same strain as commonly found in the Lower 48 and the animals did not seem to display symptoms of respiratory distress.
Fish and Game is still working on isolating the type of bacterium in the sheep, but the announcement reopens a hot debate between sport hunters and farmers that tentatively closed earlier this year. The department plans to intesnify surveillance for the bacterium with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Research Unit and the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, according to the release.
Domestic sheep and goats commonly carry strains of M. ovi. Voluntary testing among sheep and goat owners in Alaska over the last two years in response to concern by the Board of Game showed about 4-5 percent of the approximately 1,500 domestic goats and sheep known to be present in Alaska were positive for strains of M. ovi. It typically takes close contact between animals to transmit the bacteria, and herders have argued that because their animals are penned, the risk to wild animals is relatively low in Alaska.
In early 2016, the Alaska Wild Sheep foundation submitted a proposal to the Board of Game to remove domestic goats and sheep from the clean list in the state, which allows them to be imported and transported in the state without a game permit. They’re technically regulated by the state veterinarian’s office within the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. The proposal would have also required double fencing and testing for each animal for M. ovi, which the agricultural community argued would cripplingly raise the cost of animal husbandry. Amid the debate, the board agreed to delay the proposal by two years.
In January 2018, after extensive talks and voluntary testing among domestic sheep and goat owners supported by the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation, the Board of Game decided to turn down the proposal as long as the industry kept vigilant and kept testing.
Three months later, tests showed the exact situation the board had been hoping to avoid.
“We did not impose restrictions on the producers with a very clear agreement that we were going to work towards keeping this M. Ovi-free status that we enjoy and we were going to continue testing,” said Ted Spraker, the chairman of the Board of Game. “At that time, they tested about 376 animals in a number of farms and found it in 26 percent of farms. That was a huge red flag for everyone … Three months later, the bottom falls right out of the bucket.”
It’s a positive sign that the animals don’t seem sick, he said, but M. ovi can lead to opportunistic diseases when the animals become stressed by environmental factors such as a harsh winter or nutritional deficiency. Those factors are hard for managers to control, but they may be able to control the wild populations’ exposure to M. ovi.
“The board is not going to take an aggressive position unless if necessary,” he said. “We’re not a bunch of handwringers on the board … we’ll do something if it needs to be done, but we’re not going to try to do something without the science.”
The Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation plans to do the same, said executive director Kevin Kehoe. The foundation supports Fish and Game’s decision to bring in an independent testing lab for secondary verification of the data.
“We want a second opinion, but at the same time, we have to assume the results are real,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to gear up for an aggressive testing program. It can also change in the field… the truth is we’ve probably got more questions than we have answers. We should also probably start to formulate some contingency plans.”
The Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation has paid for some of the testing, replacement of culled domestic animals and shipping infected animals out of state so far, a program Kehoe estimated costs $500,000 and is largely supported by fundraisers by the Wild Sheep Foundation, he said. The wild sheep and goat hunting industry is worth about $40 million, he said, and has a lot of interest in maintaining healthy populations — about 25 percent of the wild sheep populations in North America live in Alaska, he said. The organization is open to working with the agricultural industry but wants the input to be equal on both sides, he said.
“We’ve offered to pay for the vet visits, the testing, and the replacement of the animals,” he said. “So basically we just need their side to step up.”
The Alaska House of Representatives is currently considering a resolution, HCR 23, that would offer unspecified support for state agencies to take actions to control the spread of foreign pathogens in wild game populations. It is next scheduled for a hearing Monday at 1 p.m. before the House Resources Committee.
In a letter to the Legislature regarding the resolution, Alaska Farm Bureau Executive Director Amy Seitz wrote that the Wild Sheep Foundation’s offer to pay for testing and animal replacement came with strings attached but the industry proceeded with the testing anyway. Some of those strings included mandatory testing and the publication of records of ownership, possibly exposing the sheep and goat owners to harassment, she wrote. Producers also have concerns about the accuracy in the type of testing currently available, and the associated costs, she wrote.
“As you can see, there are many issues and concerns with the strings (the Wild Sheep Foundation) has attached to their money,” she wrote. “They have been saying $600,000, however, we are quite certain it’s going to cost a lot more than that. WSF hasn’t said they would cover the cost no matter what the expense, and there is also no guarantee that they won’t pull the funding like they did with the offer to help with the study we already have in progress.”