Pneumonia in bighorn sheep: Risk and resilience

Journal of Wildlife Management
By: , and 



Infectious disease was an important driver of historic declines and extirpations of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) in North America and continues to impede population restoration and management. Domestic sheep have long been linked to pneumonia outbreaks in bighorn sheep and this association has now been confirmed in 13 captive commingling experiments. However, ecological and etiological complexities still hinder our understanding and control of the disease. We provide an overview of the current state of knowledge about the biology and management of respiratory disease in bighorn sheep and propose strategies for moving forward. Epizootic pneumonia in bighorn sheep is polymicrobial. Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, a bacterium host-specific to Caprinae and commonly carried by healthy domestic sheep and goats appears to be a necessary primary agent. All-age epizootics following introduction of M. ovipneumoniae along with other pathogens into bighorn sheep populations are usually severe (median mortality 47%) but fatality rates vary widely, from 15 – 100%. Disease severity may be influenced by the strain of M. ovipneumoniae, by secondary bacterial and viral pathogens, and by factors affecting transmission and host immunity. Once introduced, M. ovipneumoniae can persist in bighorn sheep populations for decades. Carrier dams transmit the pathogen to their susceptible lambs, triggering fatal pneumonia outbreaks in nursery groups, which limits recruitment and slows or prevents population recovery. The result is that demographic costs of pathogen persistence often outweigh the impacts of the initial invasion and die-off. There is currently no effective vaccine or antibiotic for domestic or wild sheep and to date, no management actions have been successful in reducing morbidity, mortality, or disease spread once pathogen invasion has occurred. Molecular-based strain typing suggests that spillover of M. ovipneumoniae into bighorn sheep populations from domestic small ruminants is ongoing, and that consequences of pathogen invasion are amplified by movements of infected bighorn sheep. Therefore, current disease management strategies focus on reducing risk of spillover from reservoir populations of domestic small ruminants and on limiting transmission among bighorn sheep. A broad array of approaches has been tried and more are needed to prevent pathogen introduction, induce disease fadeout in persistently infected populations, and promote population resilience across the diverse landscapes bighorn sheep inhabit. A comprehensive examination of disease dynamics across populations could help elucidate how disease fades out naturally and if population resilience can be increased in the face of infection. Cross-jurisdictional adaptive management experiments and transdisciplinary collaboration, including partnerships with members of the domestic sheep and goat community, are needed to facilitate innovation and speed progress towards sustainable solutions for managing pneumonia to protect and restore bighorn sheep populations.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Pneumonia in bighorn sheep: Risk and resilience
Series title Journal of Wildlife Management
DOI 10.1002/jwmg.21309
Volume 82
Issue 1
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center
Description 14 p.
First page 32
Last page 45
Country United States
State California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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