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Fish and Game, partners tackle threats to Alaska’s wild sheep and goats

  • Author: Sam Cotten, Bob Gerlach
    | Opinion
  • Updated: April 17
  • Published April 17

A pair of Dall sheep feed on the cliffs along Turnagain Arm and the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, Alaska on Saturday, March 10, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Recent detection of the bacterium Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, or "Movi," for the first time ever in Alaska's Dall sheep and mountain goats didn't happen by accident. The discovery, announced last month by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, was the result of proactive wildlife disease surveillance conducted in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Animal Disease Research Unit, in Pullman, Washington.

Based on accounts from the western U.S. and British Columbia where the bacterium is sometimes found in domestic and wild sheep and goats, Movi could present a serious threat to Alaska's wild sheep, goats, and possibly musk oxen. More than a hundred Movi strains are known to exist with some posing greater health threats to these animals than others. At its worst, Movi-associated pneumonia outbreaks in Lower 48 bighorn sheep have led to die-offs, compromising herd sustainability and survival. For now, no such outbreaks have been observed in Alaska's Dall sheep or mountain goats.

In a recent opinion piece, "It's time Fish and Game did more to protect Alaska's wild sheep and goats," Alaska hunting advocates Doug Vincent-Lang, Sam Rohrer, and Rod Arno suggest that now "is not time to take a wait-and-see approach [to Movi] given the risks."

We couldn't agree more.

The Department of Fish and Game, in partnership with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the USDA Animal Disease Research Unit, and the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory, is working aggressively to track and learn more about Movi in Alaska.

Efforts to intensify and broaden ongoing surveillance have already begun with Fish and Game biologists currently in the field capturing, radio-collaring, and testing Alaska's wild sheep and goats for Movi. Surveillance will include repeated testing and general health evaluations of individual animals coupled with close observation of the status and health of wild sheep and goat populations.

It's worth emphasizing that Fish and Game's vigilance for Movi in Dall sheep and mountain goats is nothing new. The department has continuously monitored Alaska's herds for Movi and other pathogens for many years. In the past, a very small number of suspected positives were detected, but based on technology available at the time results were inconclusive.

Flash forward to last year: Substantial improvements in testing occurred for the Department of Fish and Game when we teamed up with the USDA Animal Disease Research Unit lab. The collaboration allowed the department to analyze samples collected last year and in previous years and incorporate bacterial genetic studies maintaining high Movi-detection sensitivity and specificity. Tests included samples taken from animals harvested by hunters and from others captured and released by biologists. More than 1,600 samples from Dall sheep, mountain goat, musk oxen, bison, moose, and caribou have been submitted to the lab for evaluation and results are being updated regularly.

Findings so far have confirmed detection of Movi in 13 of 136 Dall sheep tested in Game Management Units 12, 13A, 20A, 25C, 26B, and 26C; and in five of 39 mountain goats, all in Unit 15B. The presence of Movi in an animal does not mean it is or will become sick. None of the animals tested positive showed outward signs of illness.

On the domestic animal front, the DEC has overseen voluntary Movi testing of domestic sheep and goats and collected more than 1,300 samples from 466 of Alaska's approximately 1,500 resident domestic sheep and goats. All samples were collected by a veterinarian according to a strict collection protocol. The results have shown 5 percent prevalence in the domestic animals.

So, can these results be trusted? In the recent op-ed, Vincent-Lang, Rohrer, and Arno express concern that a second opinion on test results is needed and call for "immediate action."

Again, we're on it.

In DEC's effort, 382 duplicate samples were sent to both the USDA Agricultural Research Laboratory in Washington State and the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory. The result: A greater than 95 percent concurrence between the two labs. That extraordinary degree of concurrence inspires equally high confidence in our results.

For now, finding meaningful ways to reduce risk of pathogen transmission between domestic animals and wild animals is best done by stakeholders. Fish and Game and DEC have supported a working group to provide a forum for solutions, and while the group's early progress was slow, stakeholders in November recommitted to participating in good faith. Fish and Game and DEC have agreed to provide support and a contracted facilitator to improve progress.

Alaska's Dall sheep and mountain goat populations are currently healthy and vibrant. No pneumonia outbreaks have been observed. Now that Movi has been detected, it is important that we approach the issue not only aggressively, but also carefully to ensure that actions taken are appropriate for the benefit of wildlife and Alaskans. The Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Environmental Conservation remain committed to all of these efforts

Sam Cotten is commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and Bob Gerlach is state veterinarian. 

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