Killer bacteria found in Alaska moose, caribou for first time

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AP Photo/Mark Thiessen A moose chews on grass near downtown Anchorage, Alaska, June 6.

A harmful bacteria previously thought to live only in sheep and goats has been found in Alaska caribou and moose, according to a study announced last week by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

The study was the first to link the Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae bacteria (often called simply M. ovi) to respiratory diseases in Alaska wildlife. A caribou from the Fortymile Herd east of Fairbanks that carried the bacteria died from pneumonia last month.

In addition to being found in Alaska moose and caribou, M. ovi has infected a mule deer in New Mexico, a bison in Montana and multiple white-tailed deer in the upper Midwest, the study stated.

M. ovi has increasingly been on the radar of Alaska’s wildlife biologists. The bacteria is blamed for contributing to bighorn sheep die-offs in the Lower 48. It had been known to exist in domestic sheep and goats in Alaska, but it wasn’t confirmed in wild Alaska sheep and goats until March.

Hunting groups, including the national Wild Sheep Foundation, have called for mandatory testing of domestic animals out of concern about the health of wild herds.

Moose and caribou vastly outnumber sheep in Alaska and live in habitat more accessible to hunters. So an infection that could sicken these animals stands to affect far more people.

M. ovi can infect animals without any noticeable effects, but can also contribute to their deaths by impairing the ability of their lungs to clear out other harmful bacteria. M. ovi’s virulence varies depending on both the strain that infects the animal and the overall health of the animal. In addition to being infected with the bacteria, the Fortymile caribou that died last month was emaciated. The 18 wild sheep and goats previously found with the bacteria in Alaska were all in good health.

Biologists found the M. ovi in five of 230 moose tested and six of 243 caribou tested. It was also found in 13 of 136 Dall sheep tested and five of 39 mountain goats. Alaska’s state government is working with the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory and the United States Department of Agriculture Animal Disease Research Unit to continue studying M. ovi.

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