Assessing respiratory pathogen communities in bighorn sheep populations: Sampling realities, challenges, and improvements


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


PLoS One


Respiratory disease has been a persistent problem for the recovery of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis), but has uncertain etiology. The disease has been attributed to several bacterial pathogens including Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae and Pasteurellaceae pathogens belonging to the Mannheimia, Bibersteinia, and Pasteurella genera. We estimated detection probability for these pathogens using protocols with diagnostic tests offered by a fee-for-service laboratory and not offered by a fee-for-service laboratory. We conducted 2861 diagnostic tests on swab samples collected from 476 bighorn sheep captured across Montana and Wyoming to gain inferences regarding detection probability, pathogen prevalence, and the power of different sampling methodologies to detect pathogens in bighorn sheep populations. Estimated detection probability using fee-for-service protocols was less than 0.50 for all Pasteurellaceae and 0.73 for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae. Non-fee-for-service Pasteurellaceae protocols had higher detection probabilities, but no single protocol increased detection probability of all Pasteurellaceae pathogens to greater than 0.50. At least one protocol resulted in an estimated detection probability of 0.80 for each pathogen except Mannheimia haemolytica, for which the highest detection probability was 0.45. In general, the power to detect Pasteurellaceae pathogens at low prevalence in populations was low unless many animals were sampled or replicate samples were collected per animal. Imperfect detection also resulted in low precision when estimating prevalence for any pathogen. Low and variable detection probabilities for respiratory pathogens using live-sampling protocols may lead to inaccurate conclusions regarding pathogen community dynamics and causes of bighorn sheep respiratory disease epizootics. We recommend that agencies collect multiples samples per animal for Pasteurellaceae detection, and one sample for Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae detection from at least 30 individuals to reliably detect both Pasteurellaceae and Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae at the population-level. Availability of PCR diagnostic tests to wildlife management agencies would improve the ability to reliably detect Pasteurellaceae in bighorn sheep populations.



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