After years of interest in the phenomenon, TRU senior lecturer Scott Mann is pioneering the first research being done in B.C. to identify whether or not domestic livestock sheep in the province are carrying the bacteria Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, commonly called “Movi,” which has been devastating wild bighorn sheep populations in North America since the 1800s.
Shortly after domestic sheep were introduced to North America, bighorn sheep populations were reduced to almost half their original population, an event, Mann says, the species will never fully recover from.
“There’s been ongoing research about this, mainly funded through hunting groups. They’re really the people that have the most desire to keep sheep on the mountain, and actively do conservation efforts.” But, Mann said, with this research it is the first time that the funding is coming from the government – 80 per cent of it, in fact.
The funding allows Mann to afford the specialized testing that is required to determine whether or not the domestic sheep are carriers of the bacteria. Once a nasal swab or blood sample is taken, it is then sent to a third-party laboratory for Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing.
Mann will be taking 300 samples from 30 farms across B.C. in the Thompson-Nicola region, the South Okanagan and the Kootenays. He will also be looking to areas where bighorn sheep have died off, which he suspects Movi to be the cause of. The affected areas more than two decades ago were to the east of the Fraser River, in Chase and just two years ago in Chasm, which saw the bighorn sheep population in that area drop from 120 to 20.
For domestic sheep, the organism has minimal to no effect, but when it is introduced to wild bighorns the results are fatal. Mann describes the effect as being similar to that of someone who has contracted Autoimmune Deficiency Syndromes (AIDS), and is therefore vulnerable to a host of potentially deadly viruses they would be immune to otherwise.
“We’ve now pretty much determined that the ones that survive act as carriers and the give it to every succeeding lamb,” which Mann said can result in a complete die-off of the flock.
More significant research on Movi has been done in the United States than in Canada, but there is still no vaccine despite ongoing research, so the best options at the time are to identify which domestic sheep harbour the bacteria and then keep a buffer zone between them and wild bighorn sheep.
Naturally, however, the wild bighorn sheep are drawn to the flocks of domestic sheep, be it because of pheromones, curiosity or a lone male sheep looking for female suitors. The disease is then contracted through contact and can passed on by simpling rubbing noses.
“I have every expectation that we will find that its presence and prevalence will be identical to Washington,” Mann said, where they have done research already and identified Movi in the flocks.
Mann says that the research he is doing will help to move processes forward in-regard to mitigation, and he hopes it will help convince farmers to cooperate in the process of helping to protect the vulnerable bighorn population, something he believes could be difficult, as farmers may be fearful to have their flocks identified as Movi carriers.
“What I’m personally working towards is that we can develop Movi-free domestic flocks. If it’s not too prevalent, let’s say only 20 to 30 per cent of the sheep have it, then we can selectively take those out of the domestic population, and over a period of years eventually develop Movi-free flocks,” Mann said.
There is some hope that this can occur, since Mann said studies in the U.S. indicate that the process is not that difficult.