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Remarkable research: MSU to study interactions and disease transmission between wild and domestic sheep

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

The coexistence of domestic and Bighorn sheep has led to disease outbreaks and ongoing controversy between producers and wildlife enthusiasts for years. 

Recently, Montana State University’s (MSU) College of Agriculture received a $4 million grant from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) to help better understand interactions between the two species and how diseases spread between their populations. 

According to a Jan. 4 press release published by MSU News Service, data gathered in the study will help wildlife managers create effective management strategies to allow both species to exist on Montana’s rangelands.

“Being able to better predict when and where domestic and wild sheep are likely to interact will allow us to be more efficient with our time and resources,” notes MSU Extension Wildlife Specialist and Assistant Professor Jared Beaver in the press release. 

“It allows us to focus mitigation efforts in highest-risk areas and potentially focus reintroduction in areas where transmission risk is very low,” he adds.

Study focus 

MSU’s research will place an emphasis on Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M. ovi.), a respiratory bacteria known to cause pneumonia in sheep and goats. 

MSU Extension Sheep Specialist Brent Roeder explains symptoms of M. ovi. are generally mild in domestic herds, but can be devastating to Bighorn sheep. 

Additionally, Beaver points out if research is able to identify how often the two species interact and where interaction occurs, management plans and strategies for reintroducing Bighorn sheep can be tailored to minimize risk. 

He also nods to previous research, which has shown a buffer of at least nine miles is enough to significantly reduce the transmission of M. ovi.

“Getting a better understanding of how contact is occurring and seeing if there are predictors for it means we can start to identify better tools than just a line on a map,” Beaver says in the MSU release. 

Beaver further notes because previous studies have “lacked local and generational knowledge,” MSU is setting out to conduct a study which includes all stakeholders, including producers who were traditionally left out of the conversation. 

Stakeholder collaboration

Therefore, MSU will collaborate with the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana Wool Growers Association and numerous Montana sheep producers, particularly those in higher-traffic areas, to create and study several prevention strategies, including using livestock guardian dogs and/or sheepherders and seasonally rotating pasture based on Bighorn migration patterns. 

Beaver notes collar data from Bighorn sheep will be instrumental in this research.

According to MSU’s press release, MSU’s team hopes their research will generate new ideas for management and care to benefit sheep producers and land and wildlife managers both in and out of the state, as well as the domestic and wild sheep populations. 

“The issue of respiratory disease in Bighorn sheep has been the subject of a huge amount of work across the Western U.S. and Canada for decades,” says Emily Almberg, a wildlife disease ecologist for Montana FWP and a member of the collaborative research team. 

“Approaches to this issue fall into two broad categories – one aimed at improving the performance of chronically-infected herds and the other aimed at finding ways to minimize new contact events which can be devastating to Bighorn population,” she continues. “Our work falls in the latter category and has the potential to yield wins for both Bighorn and domestic sheep health.”

“This has been several years in the making,” concludes Beaver. “It’s not just an ecological or biological question. There are social and cultural components to it as well, which makes it very dynamic. This is why we wanted a project built from the ground up involving MSU and FWP, but also producers and landowners, because we will not capture a full picture without diverse participation.”

Hannah Bugas is the managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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