Montana State University

MSU researcher works to restore struggling bighorn sheep populations

September 5, 2017 -- By Skip Anderson for MSU News Service

Raina Plowright, assistant professor of epidemiology in MSU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has published her four-year study of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. Shown are two bighorn sheep in the Oregon population she studied. Photo by Raina Plowright.Raina Plowright, assistant professor of epidemiology in MSU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has published her four-year study of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. Bighorn sheep are shown in the Canadian Rockies. Photo by Tony Bynum courtesy of Raina Plowright.

Raina Plowright, assistant professor of epidemiology in MSU's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has published her four-year study of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. Shown are two bighorn sheep in the Oregon population she studied. Photo by Raina Plowright.

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BOZEMAN -- Prior to the American westward expansion of the 19th century, there were as many as 2 million bighorn sheep roaming the mountains from modern-day Mexico to Canada. Today, despite intensive restoration efforts, there are fewer than 85,000 bighorn sheep in North America. A Montana State University epidemiologist is working to change that.

“Bighorn sheep have been diminished across the range in the United States ever since settlers brought domestic sheep into the western landscape,” said Raina Plowright, assistant professor of epidemiology in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology in MSU's College of Agriculture and College of Letters and Science

Domestic sheep carry the pathogen Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae in their nasal passages, which can cause pneumonia in bighorn sheep, said Plowright, who just completed a four-year study of an infected bighorn sheep population in the Wallowa Mountains of eastern Oregon.

"Domestic sheep rarely die from their infection with mycoplasma," she said. "But, when bighorn sheep become infected, there is often a die-off, killing 10 to 100 percent of the affected population.”

Additionally, Plowright said, populations that survive the first die-off often remain infected.

“The surviving adults appear quite healthy, but the lambs die of pneumonia and so the populations cannot recover," she said. "Some populations keep declining and eventually blink out.

“We hypothesized that there are chronic carriers among the ewes, and they are passing pathogens on to their lambs. But we didn’t really know. That’s what we sought to find out.”

Plowright's findings were published Sept. 4 in Ecology Letters, a leading international journal of ecology. The study, “Age-specific infectious period shapes dynamics of pneumonia in bighorn sheep” was a collaboration with Idaho and Oregon state wildlife agencies and researchers from three other universities. Co-authors of the paper include David J. Páez, a postdoctoral fellow in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

The bighorn sheep population Plowright studied was particularly useful to her work, as the animals descend to around 6,000 feet during winter and had largely become acclimated to humans through long-term supplemental feeding.

Through the labor-intensive task of swabbing the sinuses and taking blood samples from the same bighorn sheep repeatedly over four years, Plowright found that many of the older ewes were, in fact, asymptomatic carriers of the pneumonia-causing pathogen and were infecting the lambs. Many of the lambs that weren’t killed off by pneumonia matured into short-term asymptomatic carriers themselves, but it was the older ewes who were likely perpetuating the deadly cycle across generations.

Through her work with the Oregon population, Plowright and her colleagues at the University of Idaho also discovered a “genetic signature” at a gene associated with the immune systems of bighorn sheep that potentially contributes to the infection pattern.

The next step is to look at the genetics and the age patterns in other bighorn sheep populations, but, Plowright said, in order to learn the ages of the animals, they have to be monitored from an early age because a ewe over four years old cannot be accurately aged in the field.

“Also, you need to catch animals multiple times to know they are carriers and that’s hard when the population is not habituated— sometimes involving using a helicopter to help capture the animals that live much of their lives on cliff faces,” she said.

The good news is that despite an estimated 96 percent net decline in North American bighorn sheep populations over the past 150 years or so, Plowright said there has been an upward trend in their numbers since the 1970s.

“The population had declined to about 25,000, but today that has rebounded to about 85,000,” she said. "That’s due to a massive effort to reestablish bighorn sheep across western landscapes. But, the persistence of pneumonia in the species is thwarting the repopulation effort by slowing their recovery.”

Plowright said helping the bighorn sheep overcome the pneumonia that has plagued the species for more than a century is critical for their survival.

“We hope our work will help us to manage this disease,” she said. “Bighorn sheep are one of the iconic species of the American West, and they’re ecologically important. They live in this steep terrain and they’re amazing animals. What a tragedy it would be to lose this beautiful creature from our landscape.”

Plowright came to MSU in 2014 as faculty for its cooperative veterinary medicine education program with Washington State University known as WIMU (Washington, Idaho, Montana and Utah).

Since then, she has established a unique and internationally recognized research program at MSU, focused on the study of infectious disease ecology and pathogen spillover from animals to people, said Mark Jutila, head of MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“Not only is this study of considerable interest and importance to the field, it is of particular relevance to Montana because of the issue of bighorn sheep pneumonia and its impact in the state,” Jutila said.  

Morris Animal Foundation, a global leader in funding scientific studies that advance the health of companion animals, horses and wildlife, provided some of the funding for the research.

“The Foundation has funded several studies looking at various aspects of this serious threat to one of North America’s most iconic species,” said Dr. John Reddington, CEO and president of Morris Animal Foundation. “We’re pleased that Dr. Plowright and her colleagues have discovered a critical component of how the illness is perpetuated in bighorn sheep herds. Their findings will make an important contribution to the management and control of this disease.”

Other funding sources for the study include the Montana University System Research Initiative, Montana INBRE -- an Institutional Development Award from the National Institutes of Health, Oregon Chapter of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Federal Aid to Wildlife Restoration, and University of Idaho.

Contact Raina Plowright, raina.plowright@montana.edu or 406-994-2939