Fear Mongering & The Wild Sheep Foundation

The Art of Fear Mongering & the Wild Sheep Foundation

Colorado Wool Growers Association Executive Director

On June 15, the Alaska Department of Game & Fish issued a press release stating “Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M. ovi) is a respiratory bacterium that can cause disease in susceptible hosts. Previously thought to be host-restricted to sheep and goat species, scientists have identified M. ovi for the first time in healthy moose and caribou in Alaska; a bison in Montana; mule deer in New Mexico, and diseased white-tailed deer from the upper Midwest.”

For well more than a decade, the domestic sheep industry has said that researchers should be testing other wildlife species for respiratory pathogens, since most likely other species also carry pathogens that might impact respiratory disease in bighorn sheep. We welcome this newly confirmed scientific finding as the important information it is, a significant development and component to helping understand the complexity of respiratory disease in wildlife.

The Wild Sheep Foundation’s reaction to this new data is alarmist, self-serving and irresponsible. Their press release entitled Domestic Sheep Pathogen Deadly to Bighorn Sheep May Threaten White Tail Deer, Bison, Moose, Caribou and Cattle, goes beyond implicating domestic sheep as a danger to bighorns and insinuates that domestic sheep pose a threat to other wildlife, as well as other domestic livestock.    

It leads off with, “The Bozeman, Mont.-based Wild Sheep Foundation is alarmed that claims by scientists linked to the American Sheep Industry Association have found that pathogens similar to Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M. ovi) carried by domestic sheep and goats, and known to wildlife professionals across the western United States and Canada, as well as northern Mexico, as potentially deadly to North America’s iconic wild bighorn and thinhorn sheep, may now have crossed species lines to threaten other wildlife and cattle, as well. Dr. Margaret Highland a USDA/ARS/ADRU scientist who works with domestic sheep producers and their lobbying arm ASI, has reported that M. ovi, a bacteria linked to pneumonia related die-offs in bighorn sheep throughout western North America, has now been found in white-tailed deer, bison, caribou and moose.” 

Their statement attempts to taint scientific research of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Disease Research Unit, and labels it as a “claim.” Sounds like the WSF only wants to acknowledge research that supports their agenda of targeting the domestic sheep industry and trivializes and disparages new information that might help understand respiratory disease in bighorn sheep.

Livestock and wildlife have comingled on our western rangelands for more than a century. The notion that domestic sheep introduced a novel pathogen to bighorns when the west was settled might seem likely, but is purely speculation. 

Perhaps another contributing factor is that wildlife populations – with or without contact with livestock – serve as a reservoir for the very pathogen(s) that cause disease and spread of infection, as well. Common sense tells even the layman, yes, although many self-proclaimed bighorn “experts” are reluctant to agree that anything besides domestic sheep and goats might impact bighorn herd health.

WSF President & CEO Gray Thornton goes on to say in the press release that, “Dr. Highland’s findings indicate that M. ovi may have crossed species and now threatens not only bighorn sheep and thinhorn sheep, but cervids and bovids, as well. This known threat to wild sheep, and now potentially new threat to deer, elk, caribou, moose and cattle, must be taken seriously.” 

Juxtapose some common sense, and the WSF’s conclusion, suddenly seems less plausible. The Mycoplasmas: Molecular Biology, Pathogenicity, and Strategies for Control textbook states, “assumptions about restricted host range of mycoplasmas, based on the host from which they were first or frequently isolated, are usually made in the context of nearly complete absence of representative sampling of the vast majority of potential hosts.”

There is no support at this time for M. ovipneumoniae being a “new threat to deer, elk, caribou, moose, and cattle.” In fact, identification of M. ovipneumoniae in cattle was first described in a peer reviewed publication that was published in 2010 by a group out of Colorado State University. Therefore it is not “now potentially a new threat,” as WSF has implied in its fear-invoking ‘news’ release.

Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae was named such, because it was first identified in domestic sheep in New Zealand in 1972 as an infectious agent of associated with pneumonia. Unfortunately, this name greatly inhibits the thinking process of some people. There’s a clear bias and assumption that M. ovipneumoniae originated with domestic sheep because the name is associated with that species. Perhaps this assumption is correct, and perhaps it is not. It is for sure, another unknown.  With so many assumptions being used as the basis for domestic sheep management on federal lands, the domestic sheep industry is right in demanding a more objective and accurate assessment process when evaluating permit renewals and management plans on federal lands.

The western range sheep industry remains under intense pressure as some state and federal agencies continue to rely upon “pen study” results as a baseline for range management decisions (pen studies force bighorn and domestic sheep to comingle in an enclosure, and the predictable outcome is severe stress and high mortality for bighorns).  Forced confinement of the two species doesn’t occur with open range grazing, and ergo elevated stress levels associated with forced contact don’t occur. Pointing out the obvious hasn’t deterred the use of this questionable comparison.

The WSF website states, “WSF has engaged the domestic sheep industry, seeking collaboration and trying to improve relationship-building and common understanding.” Our experience here in Colorado hasn’t supported that statement, as we feel WSF has tried to hijack our statewide working group, and certainly doesn’t exude a spirit of relationship-building or collaboration as they try to force the Colorado sheep industry to agree to permit buyouts.

Until we have a much better understanding of dosage requirements, disease thresholds and all factors that impact the overall herd health of bighorn sheep, we cannot accurately assess the role domestic sheep might play in bighorn herd health.

I don’t like opinions stated as facts; and I don’t like speculation framed in the context of absolute truth. I don’t believe the risk of pathogen transfer – from domestics to bighorns – and subsequent development of respiratory disease in bighorns is a 100-percent certainty. I also don’t believe zero risk is attainable under any circumstance in life.  Life is not without risk, and we must continue to take prudent steps to minimize contact between bighorns and domestic sheep until there is a more thorough and conclusive understanding of respiratory disease in bighorns.

A closing statement about peanuts seems out of place, but..…In January 2017 the  U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases changed its Guidelines for the Prevention of Peanut Allergy in the United States. The new addendum states, “Recent scientific research has shown that peanut allergy can be prevented by introducing peanut containing foods into the diet early in life. Researchers conducted a clinical trial called Learning Early About Peanut Allergy with more than 600 infants considered to be at high risk of developing peanut allergy because they had severe eczema, egg allergy or both.” 

In a nutshell – my words, not theirs – the guidelines state, “Based on the strength of the LEAP findings, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health, worked with 25 professional organizations, federal agencies and patient advocacy groups to develop clinical practice guidelines to address the prevention of peanut allergy. A panel of experts developed the Addendum Guidelines for the Prevention of Peanut Allergy based on the LEAP findings and other recent scientific research.” 

The new guidelines establish procedures for working with your healthcare provider to expose infants to peanut-containing foods to help prevent the development of a potentially deadly peanut allergy later in life. Doctors are finally realizing that you cannot raise children in a protective bubble, so developing a strategy early on is important.

My immediate thought when I read this information was that the bighorn sheep folks should be considering this line of reasoning. My second thought was this is a great example of conventional wisdom being wrong and adjusting your sails accordingly for a better outcome.

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