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MSU receives $4M to study interactions between wild and domestic sheep

Posted at 11:35 AM, Jan 17, 2024

BOZEMAN – A research team in the Montana State University College of Agriculture has received $4 million in new funding to help lay the groundwork for disease prevention and management of wild and domestic sheep around the state and region.

Assistant professor and Extension Wildlife Specialist Jared Beaver and MSU ExtensionSheep Specialist Brent Roeder, both in MSU’s Department of Animal and Range Sciences, will lead a team in studying how often wild bighorn sheep and domestic sheep interact. The information they collect will help wildlife managers shape approaches for finding adaptive management strategies to allow both species to exist on Montana’s rangeland. It will also build on the body of knowledge to help understand how diseases spread among populations.

“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,” said Beaver, whose research focuses on holistic wildlife management approaches. “It allows us to focus mitigation efforts in the highest-risk areas and potentially focus reintroduction in areas where transmission risk is very low.”

The funding, which will support at least five years of research, comes from Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, which will also collaborate on the project. The work will help FWP implement its adaptive management plan for bighorn sheep, a species that has seen less population recovery than other reintroduced species such as elk, said Beaver.

Other collaborators include the Montana Wild Sheep Foundation, Montana Woolgrowers Association and numerous Montana sheep producers, Beaver said. Because the interaction of domestic and wild sheep can be difficult to track, bringing as many perspectives to the table as possible was a key goal of the project.

“This project has important implications for many Montanans, from lamb and wool producers to wildlife enthusiasts and the hunting community,” said Carl Yeoman, head of the Department of Animal and Range Sciences. “It will be especially valuable having all stakeholders at the table in a co-production research framework.”

Roeder, who has studied sheep production and wool quality in Montana for more than two decades, said the work will benefit from the many perspectives it considers.

“This is the first study to my knowledge that has brought this many agencies together on this topic,” he said. “It’s a current issue that's impacting a lot of domestic producers around the state.”

A particular focus of the research will be Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae, or M. Ovi, a bacteria that can cause respiratory infections that sometimes lead to pneumonia in sheep and goats. Generally, said Roeder, symptoms are mild in domestic herds, but the disease can be devastating to wild bighorn sheep herds.

Beaver said that if the research can identify trends in how frequently contact between wild and domestic sheep is happening — and where it occurs — then management plans and the reintroduction of bighorn sheep can be tailored to minimize risk.

Beaver noted previous research that showed a 14.5-kilometer buffer – roughly 9 miles – between wild and domestic herds was enough to greatly reduce transmission of M. Ovi. But allowing for that much space isn’t always feasible.

“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,” he said. “What a lot of other studies have lacked is that local and generational knowledge, so we wanted a study that properly evaluated co-mingling that also included all the stakeholders, where producers weren't left out of those conversations.”

Wild animals are frequently fitted with radio collars so that scientists and wildlife managers can track migration patterns. For this new project, Beaver said collar data from bighorn sheep will be instrumental in identifying where interaction is most frequent or most likely.

The team will work with sheep producers in higher-traffic areas on strategies for preventing contact between domestic and wild sheep. Those strategies could include using livestock guard dogs or sheepherders and rotating pasture land seasonally based on bighorn migration, said Roeder, with continued research into which strategies are most effective.

“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,” said Emily Almberg, a wildlife disease ecologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks 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 that can be devastating to bighorn populations. Our work falls in this latter category and has the potential to yield wins for both bighorn and domestic sheep health.”

The hope for the MSU team is that the project can generate new ideas for management and care that benefit the state’s producers, land and wildlife managers, and the domestic and wild sheep themselves.

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