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Deadly M-Ovi Pathogen confirmed in Alaskan wild sheep & goats

We the Yukon Wild Sheep Foundation are a group of people passionate about the protection of our northern sheep herds. Now with the confirmed presence of M-ovi virus in BC & Alaskan wild sheep and goats we fight it on two fronts. That is in addition to managing the already pressing risks present right here in the Territory. We speak to all fellow Yukoners who care about the protection of our wild sheep. Yukon wild sheep are threatened from not only this terrible disease that has the potential to wipe out entire herds, but also from the threat of complacency and inaction. Please consider joining us as a YWSF member or attending our upcoming banquet fundraiser.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) officials have confirmed Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (commonly referred to as M.ovi) has been documented in at least 4 Dall’s sheep and 2 mountain goats in Alaska; this represents the first time M.ovi bacteria has been found anywhere in free-ranging Dall’s or Stone’s sheep (also referred to as thinhorn 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, 4 rams taken in Game Management Unit 13A in the Talkeetna Mountains tested positive for M.ovi DNA from nasal swabs, while 2 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 has been implicated in significant die-offs of bighorn sheep in the lower 48 states and southern Canadian provinces. Domestic sheep and goats (Caprinae family) are known to commonly carry this respiratory pathogen. Some strains of M.ovi are more virulent than others; at press time, specific strain-typing of these Alaskan M.ovi bacteria is not known or publicly-available. No vaccine against M.ovi infection exists, and management options are extremely limited. 

According to WSF President and CEO Gray N. Thornton, “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 in Alaska, home to more than 25% of the wild sheep in all of North America.” Added Thornton, “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 Alaska agencies charged with safeguarding and managing this invaluable wildlife resource; our worst fears are now confirmed.”

Kevin Kehoe, President of the Alaska WSF Chapter stated, “we have tried to work closely with the State Veterinarian, the domestic sheep and goat industry, and individual producers here in Alaska, in an effort to document the presence and prevalence of M.ovi in Alaska’s estimated 1,500 - 1,800 domestic sheep and goats.” Added Kehoe, “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 WSF Board member, Dr. Wolff stated “it is very unfortunate that Alaska now has documented a problem that has plagued bighorn sheep in many western jurisdictions, for decades.” Further, Wolff added, “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.” 

“Disease surveillance must be stepped up in thinhorn sheep jurisdictions (i.e., Alaska, Yukon Territory, Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia),” noted Thornton, adding “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 to 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.”

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