Imperfect Tests, Pervasive Pathogens, and Variable Demographic Performance: Thoughts on Managing Bighorn Sheep Respiratory Disease


  • Carson J. Butler
  • W. Hank Edwards
  • Jessica Jennings-Gaines
  • Halcyon J. Killion
  • Mary E. Wood
  • J. Terrill Paterson
  • Kelly M. Proffitt
  • Emily S. Almberg
  • P. J. White
  • Douglas E. McWhirter
  • Jay J. Rotella
  • Robert A. Garrott


Respiratory disease (pneumonia) has been a persistent challenge for bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) conservation and its cause has been attributed to numerous bacteria including Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae and several Pasteurellaceae family species. This study sought to investigate efficacy of diagnostic protocols in detecting Pasteurellaceae and Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, generate sampling recommendations for different protocols, assess the distribution of these disease agents among 17 bighorn sheep populations in Montana and Wyoming, and evaluate what associations existed between detection of these agents and demographic performance of bighorn sheep populations. Analysis of replicate samples from individual bighorn sheep revealed that detection probability for regularlyused diagnostic protocols was generally low (<50%) for Pasteurellaceae and was high (>70%) for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, suggesting that routine pathogen sampling likely mischaracterizes respiratory pathogen communities. Power analyses found that most pathogen species could be detected with 80% confidence at the population-level by conducting regularly-used protocols multiple times per animal. Each pathogen species was detected in over half of the study populations, but after accounting for detection probability there was low confidence in negative test results for populations where Pasteurellaceae species were not detected. Seventy-six percent of study populations hosted both Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae and Pasteurellaceae pathogens, yet a number of these populations were estimated to have positive population growth rates and recruitment rates greater than 30%. Overall, the results of this work suggest that bighorn sheep respiratory disease may be mitigated by manipulating population characteristics and respiratory disease epizootics could be caused by pathogens already resident in bighorn sheep population.





Biological Systems - Terrestrial Ecosystems [Presentation Abstracts]