Bacteria which can leave livestock more prone to respiratory diseases have been documented in Alaska moose and caribou for the first time, state officials said Friday.

The findings are part of a paper, co-authored by Alaska Department of Fish and Game veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen according to a statement from the department. In it, Beckmen and other co-authors show that Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae – also known as Movi – has spread into several species across the nation including a Montana bison, New Mexico mule deer and white-tailed deer from the upper Midwest.

A Fish and Game set of frequently asked questions regarding Movi emphasizes that the bacteria doesn’t affect humans. In affected species, previously known to include Alaska mountain goats and sheep, it paralyzes cilia – hairs which prevent respiratory diseases from reaching animals’ lungs – making them more susceptible to pneumonia.

The findings, which were set to be presented Friday at a meeting of the Idaho Veterinary Medical Association in Lewiston, Idaho, showed five moose and six caribou testing positive for Movi out of 230 moose and 243 caribou sampled in the study. Those rates compare to Movi findings in 13 of 136 Dall sheep tested in six Alaska game management units – 12, 13A, 20A, 25C, 26B and 26C – as well as five of 39 mountain goats tested in Unit 15B.

One of the animals tested, an emaciated caribou from the Fortymile herd found dead on May 16, marked another first for Alaska: a necropsy showed that it ultimately died due to a bronchopneumonia.

“Lung samples from the caribou sent to the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory in Pullman, Washington tested positive for Movi,” Fish and Game officials wrote. “This is the same bacteria recently detected for the first time in healthy Alaska Dall sheep and mountain goats.”

Bruce Dale, director of Fish and Game’s Division of Wildlife Conservation, called the findings – Alaska’s first implication of Movi in respiratory disease – “groundbreaking” in Friday’s statement.

He said by phone that the findings – based in part on moose and caribou samples dating back to 2014 – don’t raise concerns for moose and caribou mortality in Alaska, noting that healthy animals’ immune systems can still fight off respiratory diseases they might contract after a Movi infection.

“We had one caribou that was in pretty poor condition and had it and died,” Dale said. “One of the animals’ defense mechanisms against that is the cilia, and they’re being taken out of play.”

The new study leaves Southeast Alaska as the state’s only region in which Movi hasn’t been detected by Fish and Game. There aren’t any particular regions or herds for which the bacteria poses a concern, Dale said.

Alaska’s domesticated population of sheep and goats has gradually fallen from an estimated 30,000 to about 1,500 today, according to Dale. Although Fish and Game plans to step up its monitoring of moose and caribou populations, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, much isn’t known about Movi – including whether it was brought to the state in domesticated animals.

“The fact that it’s been found in caribou on the North Slope suggests that something else is going on, but we don’t know,” Dale said.

Editor's note: An initial version of this story omitted the word "domesticated" in a description of Alaska's sheep and goat population.

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