Course:CONS200/2023WT1/Why are wild goats and sheep so susceptible to disease and what to do about it

From UBC Wiki
A bighorn sheep surveys its domain from a brushy knoll

The management of domestic livestock and its intersection with wildlife populations is an area of critical importance for conservationists, agricultural communities, and environmental stakeholders. In North America, the interactions between domestic goats and Bighorn Sheep (BHS) have come under scientific scrutiny due to potential disease transmission risks. The intersection of domestic goats with BHS habitats raises significant concerns about the health of wildlife populations, the sustainability of agricultural practices, and the conservation of biodiversity.[1] This Wiki page delves into the multifaceted issue of disease dynamics between domestic goats and BHS, providing a synthesized overview of the historical context, the scale and severity of the problem, and the array of factors influencing these interspecies interactions.


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Historical Context and Scope of the Problem

Bighorn Sheep (BHS) have been an integral part of North America’s wildlife, valued for their ecological role and cultural significance. However, their populations have been historically undermined by unregulated hunting and habitat loss [2].  More recently, disease transmission from domestic animals has emerged as a prominent threat. Domestic goats, which are increasingly utilised for brush control, dairy, meat, and as pack animals, often share the same rangelands with BHS, inadvertently becoming vectors for pathogens detrimental to the health of wild sheep populations.

Intensity, Frequency, and Severity of Impacts

Disease outbreaks, particularly of respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia, have repeatedly impacted BHS herds with alarming mortality rates, sometimes wiping out entire local populations. These outbreaks are linked to pathogens common in domestic goats [3]. The impact is not restricted to immediate morbidity and mortality but also leads to long-term population declines due to decreased lamb survival, making recovery a slow and uncertain process [4].

Variables Influencing Impacts

The risk of disease transmission is influenced by several factors, including the proximity of domestic goats to BHS habitats, the health and management practices within domestic herds, and the environmental conditions that facilitate or impede the spread of diseases. Pack goats, which are often in closer contact with humans, tend to receive more veterinary care and are generally better managed in terms of disease prevention compared to herd goats used primarily for agricultural purposes . This disparity in management practices directly affects the health dynamics between domestic goats and BHS.

The seasonal and geographical patterns of land use also play a crucial role. During certain times of the year, BHS may descend to lower elevations or fragmented habitats where encounters with domestic goats are more likely [5]. Furthermore, the introduction of new animals into established herds without proper quarantine and health checks can introduce novel pathogens to both domestic and wild populations.

In recent years, there has been significant progress in molecular diagnostic techniques, such as PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) and advanced genomic sequencing. These technologies allow for the more precise identification of pathogens at a genetic level. One of the key outcomes of these advancements is the improved detection of pathogens like Mycoplasma spp. Mycoplasma are a group of bacteria that lack a cell wall, making them difficult to detect and study with traditional microbiological techniques. They are known to cause respiratory diseases in a variety of animals, including livestock and wildlife [6].

Management and Conservation Efforts

To mitigate the risks of disease transmission, wildlife biologists, veterinarians, and land managers advocate for strict management practices [1].

These may include:

Enhanced Veterinary Care: Improve veterinary care for herd goats to match the level provided to pack goats, focusing on vaccination and deworming.

Isolation Protocols: Establish protocols to minimize contact between domestic goats and BHS, particularly for goats that test positive for pathogens with high disease potential for BHS.

Regular Health Monitoring: Conduct regular health assessments and pathogen screening for domestic goats in areas where BHS are present.

Education and Awareness: Inform goat owners of the risks associated with pathogen transmission to BHS and the importance of biosecurity measures.

Research and Surveillance: Continue research into the pathogen dynamics between domestic goats and BHS, and maintain surveillance for emerging health threats.

Current remedial actions and the Path Forward

Addressing Disease Transmission Between Domestic Goats and Bighorn Sheep

The increasing recognition of the impact of diseases transmitted from domestic goats to BHS has led to the implementation of various remedial actions. These measures are designed to mitigate the risks and manage the interactions between domestic livestock and wildlife populations effectively.

Veterinary Care and Management Practices

Enhanced Veterinary Attention: Given the findings that pack goats generally receive more veterinary care than herd goats, improving veterinary services for all domestic goats might hep with the situation [1]. This includes regular vaccinations, especially against Clostridium perfringens C and D and Clostridium tetani (CDT), and comprehensive deworming programs.

Health Monitoring and Testing: Regular health monitoring and pathogen screening for domestic goats are being advocated, particularly in regions where these animals share habitats with BHS. This approach is crucial for the early detection and management of diseases that could potentially spill over to wildlife [7].

Regulatory and Policy Measures

Control Orders and Separation Programs: Regions like Yukon and British Columbia in Canada have initiated control orders and separation programs, mandating measures like approved enclosures and annual disease testing for domestic goats and sheep. This aims to reduce direct contact and, therefore, the risk of disease transmission to wild sheep populations [8] [9].

Funding for Compliance: In areas where these measures are in place, governments are providing financial assistance to help livestock owners comply. This includes subsidies for building ‘no-contact’ fencing and conducting necessary health tests.

Community Engagement and Awareness

Public Involvement and Education: Local communities are encouraged to participate in protecting BHS. This involves not taking M. ovi positive domestic sheep or goats on public lands in high-risk areas, testing domestic animals for M. ovi, and reporting sightings of BHS near domestic sheep or goats [10].

Awareness Programs: Efforts are underway to increase awareness about the risks of disease transmission, highlighting the importance of maintaining physical separation between domestic goats and BHS.

Research and Development

Ongoing Scientific Research: Continuous research can provide critical insights into the health status of domestic goats and the risks they pose to BHS. This research is essential for developing informed management strategies.

Updating Taxonomical Understanding: As the understanding of bacterial taxonomy evolves, particularly within the Pasteurellaceae family, wildlife health professionals are continuously updating disease diagnosis and management practices. This is especially true with the emergence of pathogens like Mycoplasma spp., which are now known to be significant contributors to BHS pneumonia [10].

These current remedial actions are part of a multifaceted strategy that includes veterinarian treatment, regulatory measures, community participation, and continuing research. The objective is to achieve a sustainable balance in which domestic goats may be used for their numerous benefits without endangering the health and stability of BHS communities. These strategies are expected to change as our knowledge of disease dynamics and ecological interactions grows, further improving the cohabitation of domestic cattle and native species.

The path forward

Strategic Enhancements in Management and Conservation

As we look towards the future, building on the current remedial actions and incorporating new research and insights will be crucial in shaping effective strategies for managing the interaction between domestic goats and BHS. The path forward involves a multi-disciplinary approach, integrating veterinary science, wildlife management, community engagement, and policy development.

Research and Monitoring

Advancements in Disease Research: Continued research into the dynamics of disease transmission between domestic goats and BHS is vital. Emphasis should be placed on emerging pathogens, their impact on wildlife, and the development of new diagnostic and treatment methods [11].

Long-term Ecological Studies: Understanding the long-term ecological impacts of domestic goats on BHS populations will require ongoing monitoring and study. This includes tracking population health, genetics, and behavior in response to disease management strategies [11].

Policy and Regulation

Refinement of Legislative Frameworks: Updating and refining policies and regulations that govern the interaction between domestic goats and BHS will be crucial. This may include stricter control measures in high-risk areas and more comprehensive guidelines for livestock management near BHS habitats [12].

Interagency Collaboration: Effective management requires collaboration across various governmental and non-governmental organizations. This collaboration ensures a unified and effective approach to conservation and livestock management.

Community and Stakeholder Involvement

Engaging Local Communities: Strengthening community involvement through education and participatory management practices can enhance conservation efforts. Local communities can play a crucial role in monitoring and reporting potential risks.

Stakeholder Education and Training: Providing education and training for goat owners, agricultural workers, and wildlife enthusiasts about the risks of disease transmission and best practices for minimizing these risks is essential.

Technological and Methodological Innovations

Utilizing Technology for Monitoring: The use of technology, such as GPS tracking and remote sensing, can aid in monitoring the movements and health of both domestic goats and BHS populations, providing real-time data for proactive management [13].

Developing Sustainable Agricultural Practices: Encouraging sustainable agricultural practices that consider wildlife health can reduce the negative impacts of livestock farming on native species.

Fostering a Balanced Ecosystem

The path forward is not just about managing disease risks but also about fostering a balanced ecosystem where domestic goats and BHS can coexist. This requires an understanding of complex ecological relationships and a commitment to sustainable practices that benefit both agriculture and wildlife conservation.


In North America, the complex interaction between domestic goats and Bighorn Sheep (BHS) poses a sophisticated conservation challenge, exemplifying the careful balance between agricultural practices and wildlife preservation. The consequences of this relationship, particularly in terms of disease transmission, are profoundly ecological, economic, and cultural.

Significant progress has been made in minimizing the dangers of disease transmission from domestic goats to BHS through collaborative management and conservation activities. The foundation of these efforts is improved veterinarian care, rigorous health monitoring, and educational programs. Furthermore, regulatory measures including control orders, separation programs, and governmental compliance funds have played critical roles in decreasing direct contact and the danger of disease spread.

Looking ahead, the path requires a consistent and flexible strategy. Future initiatives will be informed by ongoing advances in disease research, long-term ecological studies, and policy modifications. Effective management requires a collaborative effort that incorporates local communities, stakeholders, and interagency cooperation. The application of technology in monitoring, together with the development of sustainable agriculture techniques, will contribute even more to the harmonious coexistence of domestic goats and BHS.


  1. Drew, M. L., & Weiser, G. C. (2017). Potential disease agents in domestic goats and relevance to bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) management. PLOS ONE, 12(3), e0173396.

2. Miller MW. Pasteurellosis In: Infectious diseases of wild mammals. Williams ES, Barker IK, editors. Iowa State University Press, Ames, Iowa: 2001; pp. 330–339.

3. Besser, T. E., Cassirer, E. F., Potter, K. A., & VanderSchalie, J. (2008). Association of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae infection with population-limiting respiratory disease in free-ranging Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis canadensis). Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 46(2), 423-430.

4. Cassirer EF, Plowright RK, Manlove KR, Cross PC, Dobson AP, Potter KA, Hudson PJ. Spatio-temporal dynamics of pneumonia in bighorn sheep. J Anim Ecol. 2013 May;82(3):518-28. doi: 10.1111/1365-2656.12031. Epub 2013 Feb 8. PMID: 23398603.

5. Government of British Columbia. (2004). Species Information Taxonomy: Bighorn Sheep.

6. Dassanayake RP, Shanthalingam S, Herndon CN, Subramaniam R, Lawrence PK, Bavananthasivam J, Cassirer EF, Haldorson GJ, Foreyt WJ, Rurangirwa FR, Knowles DP, Besser TE, Srikumaran S. Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae can predispose bighorn sheep to fatal Mannheimia haemolytica pneumonia. Vet Microbiol. 2010 Oct 26;145(3-4):354-9. doi: 10.1016/j.vetmic.2010.04.011. Epub 2010 Apr 21. PMID: 20466492.

7. Underwood, W. J., Blauwiekel, R., Delano, M. L., Gillesby, R., Mischler, S. A., & Schoell, A. (2015). Biology and Diseases of Ruminants (Sheep, Goats, and Cattle). Laboratory Animal Medicine, 3, 623–694.

8. Reduce the risk of respiratory disease in wild sheep and goats. (2023, August 23).

9. Forests, M. of. (n.d.). Wild Sheep Health - Province of British Columbia.

10. Food, M. of A. and. (n.d.). Domestic and wild sheep and goats, and the risk of Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae - Province of British Columbia. Retrieved December 16, 2023, from

11. Cassirer, E. F., Manlove, K. R., Plowright, R. K., & Besser, T. E. (2017). Evidence for Strain-Specific Immunity to Pneumonia in Bighorn Sheep. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 81(1), 133–143.

12. Cassirer, E. F., Manlove, K. R., Almberg, E. S., Kamath, P. L., Cox, M., Wolff, P., Roug, A., Shannon, J., Robinson, R., Harris, R. B., Gonzales, B. J., Plowright, R. K., Hudson, P. J., Cross, P. C., Dobson, A., & Besser, T. E. (2017). Pneumonia in bighorn sheep: Risk and resilience. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 82(1), 32–45.

13. Tomkiewicz, S. M., Fuller, M. R., Kie, J. G., & Bates, K. K. (2010). Global positioning system and associated technologies in animal behaviour and ecological research. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 365(1550), 2163–2176.

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