(Juneau) — The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expanding the respiratory pathogen surveillance program with a focus on detecting Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, M. ovi for shorthand, a bacterium that can cause respiratory diseases in big game animals such as Dall’s sheep. The department is asking hunters to provide the heads of any Dall’s sheep, mountain goat, or Delta bison harvested, as well as the heads of certain moose, caribou, and muskoxen populations so that samples can be taken.
Fish and Game biologists and staff will swab the nasal cavity to collect a sample. The department requests that hunters in some areas bring in heads with intact nasal mucosa. To be most helpful for analysis, the heads should be brought in fresh and kept cool but not frozen — and no later than 14 days after the animal is harvested. The hunter’s personal information will not be associated with the laboratory results but the location of the harvest is key to the surveillance.
“Thanks to hunters willing to bring in the head of harvested animals in those wildlife populations we’d like to sample,” said Director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, Bruce Dale. “We know that hunters understand the importance of disease surveillance and we appreciate their assistance with this effort.”
This harvest sampling is just a part of the overall respiratory disease surveillance program. The department is also working on research with other state and federal partners, sampling animals captured during research field work, and investigating reports of sick and dead animals. Specific Dall’s sheep and mountain goat populations are the focus of multi-year monitoring to assess the impact of M. ovi, and the department is conducting research to improve future surveillance efforts.
Multiple strains of M. ovi have been detected in Dall’s sheep, mountain goats, caribou and moose in Alaska. All of the live and hunter harvested animals sampled appeared healthy and the department has no evidence that M. ovi has caused sickness or death in Alaska’s wild sheep or goat populations. However, M. ovi was associated with the death of an emaciated caribou. M. ovi does not affect humans.
The presence of M. ovi in an animal does not necessarily mean it is sick or will become sick. The ability of M. ovi to cause pneumonia depends not only upon the strain of the bacteria but more importantly is impacted by multiple stressors on the animal including poor nutritional condition and/or environmental factors such as extreme weather. Both domestic and wild sheep and goats can carry the strains of bacteria they are adapted to while showing no signs of illness.
Sometimes found in domestic and wild sheep and goats in the Lower 48, and a small percentage of domestic flocks in Alaska, M. ovi is considered a pathogen because it impairs hosts’ respiratory cilia from clearing bacteria that enter the lungs normally at each breath. M. ovi strains from domestic sheep have been associated with pneumonia outbreaks in Lower 48 bighorn sheep, often resulting in significant die-offs.