Originally published in collaboration with Elizabeth Earl, and in the Peninsula Clarion

A harmful pathogen previously known only in goats and sheep has been found in healthy Alaskan moose and caribou.

Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, commonly known as Movi, is a harmful bacterium known to cause pneumonia-like disease in both domestic goats and sheep and has caused die-offs in the Lower 48 wildlife populations. This is the first time it’s been detected in animals other than goats and sheep in Alaska, according to a Friday press release from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Outside the state, Movi was also found in a healthy bison in Montana, a mule deer in New Mexico and a sick white-tail deer in the upper Midwest.

Movi may have contributed to the death of a caribou in the Fortymile herd east of Fairbanks, according to Fish and Game. Lab tests confirmed the presence of Movi in the dead caribou’s lungs, the first time the bacterium had been connected to an actual case of respiratory disease in wildlife in the state, according to Fish and Game.

Bruce Dale, the director of the Division of Wildlife Conservation, said the dead caribou was also emaciated, which is not a known effect of Movi. Four herds in the state — from near Dillingham to the North Slope — have tested positive for the bacterium, but no sick individuals have been spotted. Archived samples from the Fortymile caribou herd from 2013–2014 have also tested positive for the bacterium, Dale said.

“It’s been around for awhile — it’s not like we’re expecting this to be rampantly present,” he said. “There’s been lots of cases of pneumonia in our caribou studies — never associated with Movi before, but always associated with being in poor condition.”

Movi is one of over 100 known mycoplasma species, which have varying degrees of virulence. The ability for Movi to cause respiratory illness is affected by other pathogens and other factors, as was the case with the caribou, according to the press release.

Individuals can carry Movi for some time without becoming sick, or may never become sick themselves. Environmental stressors, such as hunger, hard winters or other sickness, can open up the opportunity for Movi to manifest itself. Fish and Game does extensive tracking on the Fortymile herd and only one individual turned up susceptible to the disease, Dale said.

Movi was originally thought to have been only present in goats and sheep. State veterinarian Dr. Robert Gerlach said that it is unknown how the transfer between species occurred.

“The pathogen might be present in the wild and natural environment,” Gerlach said.

Nearly 400 of the estimated 1,500 domestic goats and sheep in the state have been tested for Movi, with around 4 percent testing positive, according to Fish and Game.

Statewide awareness of Movi began in early 2016 when the Board of Game considered a proposal to remove domestic goats and sheep from the “clean list,” an approved list that includes animals like domestic dogs and cats and allows them to be moved in and out of the state without a permit. The proposal would have required the goats and sheep to be individually tested, require permits and have double-fencing to prevent any nose-to-nose contact with any wild animals, in part because of the risk of Movi infection.

After public outcry about the burden of the permits, testing and fencing, the Board of Game agreed to delay the proposal for two years, giving goat and sheep owners time to work the issue out on their own with those concerned about the pathogen. In November 2017, the Board of Game was satisfied and turned down the proposalLess than three months later, Fish and Game found wild sheep and goats that tested positive for Movi, including some on the Kenai Peninsula.

Deanna O’Connor uses her blog, “If you Give a Girl a Goat,” to share stories and tips about raising goats that she’s learned running her hobby farm in Nikiski. She first got her goats tested for Movi in 2016, and then with the state veterinarian’s office in 2017. Her goats tested negative for Movi.

“Domestic owners are deeply invested in the health of their herds and flocks and are willingly the first line of defense when it comes to the spread of any illness to and from our animals,” O’Connor said. “We are more than happy to voluntarily participate in programs that keep animals — domestics and wilds alike — healthy, but we do not want to be regulated or permitted.”

With the news of moose and caribou carrying the pathogen, Wasilla resident Tina Judd is only a little concerned. She keeps a herd of 45 goats in Wasilla.

“We have a lot of moose near our property, but we have guardian dogs that keep them at bay,” Judd said.

Judd said she aims to keep up with the most recent science and keep wild and domestic animals separated. She and her husband are creating a support group called the Alaska Goat and Sheep Alliance, which she hopes can be a source for people to learn about and promote healthy herds and flocks.

For now, Judd said that future decisions regarding Movi should be based on science, not fear.

“Until the science is more developed, we shouldn’t look at the discovery of Movi in the wild population as the sky falling, but rather continue the testing of both domestic and wild animals and gathering facts,” Judd said.

Fish and Game plans to do more radio collaring on two wild sheep populations in the Brooks Range and in the Talkeetna Mountains, where animals tested positive for Movi before. Later, they’ll recapture some of those individuals and nearby animals to determine if the collared animal is still infected and if the others became infected, Dale said.

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