Goats and Bighorn Sheep: Packgoats ARE NOT a hazard to Bighorn Sheep

Pack Goats and Bighorn Sheep

Goats and Bighorn Sheep: Pack Goats ARE NOT a Hazard to Bighorn Sheep

A Common Headline:

“Goats Carry Pathogens That Can Cause Die-Offs In Bighorn Sheep Herds”

Common Justifications cited:

#1) The Rudolph Papers Pertaining To a Hells Canyon Die-Off — A Now Outdated Publication

From page 901 of the 2003 publication…

The Rudolph Papers Pertaining to a Hells Canyon Die-Off

First and foremost there is nothing in this paper to support the presence of the feral goats as the cause of any pneumonia in bighorn sheep. Most importantly, this paper focuses on specific bacteria (the “Pasteurellas”) which are now known to NOT be the primary cause of pneumonia outbreaks in bighorn sheep. There is not, nor was there ever, any epidemiologic evidence to support “Pasteurellas” as being the primary cause of pneumonia in bighorn sheep… which when present, are secondary (opportunistic) agents, meaning that they attack after the host’s defenses are compromised by a primary pathogen (in the case of bighorn sheep, that primary agent is now thought to be Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae [“Movi”]).

Lack of Evidence: 

In reading the conclusion in the papers, the authors give even more evidence that the goats were not the cause of this epizootic of pneumonia by clearly stating that the bacteria isolates that were obtained from the goat “were not isolated from any of the other bighorn sheep in groups A and B, there is no evidence that those organisms were associated with the subsequent disease or deaths” in bighorn sheep. In other words, there was no evidence that the goats had anything to do with the pneumonia outbreaks, and much of the information directed herein at Pack goats, is speculative and unsubstantiated. It is academic that promulgating ‘rules’ for Pack goat use as was done in this article, has no real value as the recommending individual clearly had/has much more to learn about Pack goat behavior in the wilderness.

Another justification commonly used against the presence of Pack Goats in Bighorn habitat:

#2) The Silver Bell Mountains In Arizona — A Extremely Unfortunate Incident Involving Brush Goats.

“The disease outbreak impacting bighorn sheep in this case was not pneumonia, but rather infectious keratoconjunctivitis, better known as “pinkeye”.  This pinkeye outbreak coincided with the appearance of a herd of 4800 domestic brush clearing goats that were legally released onto a state land grazing allotment in the Silver Bell Mountains in Arizona.  Pinkeye can be caused by a number of bacterial agents, and the cause of the Silver Bell bighorn sheep pink eye outbreak was determined to be the bacterium Mycoplasma conjunctivae, not to be confused with the pneumonia-associated Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae.  Considering the large number of domestic goats that were released, it is certainly possible that at least a portion of them were carrying the causative bacteria, M. conjunctivae, and brought it into the area with them.

The Lack of Pneumonia:

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of this interspecies commingling between a large number of brush clearing domestic goats and the resident bighorn sheep is that there were no reports of pneumonia associated with this intermingling of species.  This is certainly notable since pneumonia is  the primary disease concern in bighorn sheep and domestic goats have been implicated (perhaps unjustifiably so) as a source cause of bighorn sheep pneumonia outbreaks, yet no pneumonia was reported even though some of the domestic goats remained in bighorn sheep habitat >60 days.


Pack goats in every case are a small group of goats, in a location isolated from other animals, assiduously watched for any sign of difficulty, and while in the wilderness, they, as a herd animal, are intensely committed to remaining close to their bonded human. An attempt to use this episode as an argument against Pack goats in the wilderness is a manipulative deception.


NAPgA issued a FOIA to Washington State University, including the Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory housed at WSU, in order to recover lab results from a 2015 commingling study of domestic goats and bighorn sheep. From documents obtained from the FOIA, an abstract presented at the NWSGC Biennial Symposium in May 2016, and email communications with the WSU researcher that performed the study, we can summarize as follows:

– Movi negative goats and bighorn sheep co-existed in the same pen for 100 days with no signs of sickness in either species.

– After infecting 2 of the Movi-free goats with a “goat strain” of Movi and putting them back into the pen with the 3 Movi-free bighorn sheep and 3rd domestic goat in the study, the bighorn sheep and the domestic goats all developed “respiratory disease (such as runny noses and coughing)”. NONE OF THE ANIMALS DIED, not even after being housed together for 100 days following Movi introduction into the pen. All of the animals were “euthanized and necropsied to determine definitively whether they had pneumonia lesions”.

During email correspondence with the WSU researcher who conducted the study, we were told that the necropsies were done as a research collaboration with a WADDL and therefore there are “no formal reports” of the necropsy findings. HOWEVER, after spending numerous hours looking through the WADDL documents, we found 3 histopathology reports of interest, 2 of which describe histopathology of lung tissues from 3 goats and 1 report which describes histopathology of lung tissue from 3 bighorn sheep. These reports are dated close to one another near/around the time the commingling study would have been completed, happen to describe 3 domestic goats and 3 bighorn sheep, and the animals are referenced in the reports to be from the WSU researcher who was performing the commingling studies.


When the researcher was asked as to whether or not the reports were from the commingling study we received the following response from the researcher “Thanks for your interest in my research program. However, I don’t think I’ll be able to find the time to be able to help you out with this request”. Having communicated multiple times with the researcher, NAPgA thought it odd that the researcher was not willing to answer such a simple question. It may be due to the fact that NONE of the bighorn sheep or goats described in the histopathology reports were diagnosed with pneumonia…..NO PNEUMONIA on microscopic examination of the lung tissues!

This is despite the fact that the researcher in previous email communications indicated that “microscopically the lesions were very similar to those seen in many cases of fatal bronchopneumonia in bighorn sheep from the wild” and the title of the WSGC Biennial Symposium abstract describing this work is “Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae originating from domestic goats triggers mild bronchopneumonia in experimentally exposed naïve bighorn sheep (and domestic goats)”.

Perhaps the gross necropsy examination led the researcher to (over)interpret the lungs as having “pneumonia” or “bronchopneumonia”, but that is certainly not what was reportedly found in the WADDL histopathology reports. It is very much worth noting that microscopic/histopathologic examination of tissue is the most accurate way to interpret lesions in tissues, as gross examinations, particularly of certain tissues including lungs, can be inaccurate.


Even when penned in close quarters with domestic goats, the bighorn sheep did not get sick, at least not until Movi was introduced into the pen. Following the infection with Movi, ALL GOATS AND BIGHORN SHEEP showed signs of respiratory disease. NONE of the goats or bighorn sheep died even after 100 days of being exposed to Movi, but rather were euthanized and found to NOT have even microscopic evidence of pneumonia or bronchopneumonia, based on the histologic diagnoses provided in the reports obtained from the FOIA.

2016 GOAT MOVI STUDY CONDUCTED BY DR. MAGGIE HIGHLAND, a Veterinary Medical Officer and Researcher with the USDA-ARS-Animal Disease Research Unit, in collaboration with USDA-APHIS personnel.

From spring through fall of 2016, 576 goats (419 pack goats and 157 housed on premises with pack goats), from 83 premises located in 13 states, were sampled 3 times at 4 week minimum intervals to test for nasal presence/shedding of Movi. Nasal swab samples were collected in duplicate at each time point, with one nasal swab from each sample collection being tested in Dr. Highland’s laboratory and the second swab from the first sample collection being tested in an independent laboratory. Repeat nasal swab sampling of the goats in this study has confirmed the presence of Movi on just 5 of the 83 premises (6% of premises).

Premises that had Movi detected in any of the goats had between 7 to ≥15 goats present on the premises. Movi was confirmed to be present on the nasal swabs collected from 30 of the 576 goats tested; this means 94.8% of the goats tested had NO Movi detected on nasal swab samples. Of the 30 total confirmed Movi positive goats, 27 (or 90%) of them were ≤1 year of age (23 of them were <5 months).

In addition to the nasal swabs, ocular swabs were collected during the first sample collection. Ocular swabs are still being analyzed for the presence of pinkeye-causing bacteria.

In summary

Not only does the behavior and handling of pack goats drastically decrease the risk of a domestic pack goat coming into contact with a bighorn sheep, it would seem highly improbable based on this large scale study that a domestic pack goat would even be shedding Movi should such an unlikely contact occur.


MUST be diligent in implementing Best Management Practices such as—

  • High lining your goats at night, and have your goats under control at all times  at the Annual Rendy.
  • Worm your goats regularly.
  • Know your animal’s health status before entering the back country. Get a Health Certificate.
  • Only take healthy goats into the back country and STAY COMPLETELY AWAY from Bighorn Sheep.
  • Consider bells on the collars so you know where your goats are when hiking.


What is the primary reason for this article? We wanted to clear up the confusion that is rampant in the minds of many people regarding the supposed hazard to Bighorn Sheep represented by Pack goats, and also to directly address two of the main articles that have been circulated mitigating against Pack goat use over the years. #1) which contains unsubstantiated and speculative information, and #2) an unfortunate incident that should never have happened, and which bears no resemblance or relationship to goats used as pack animals in a responsible manner.

Charlie Jennings, President


14 thoughts on “Goats and Bighorn Sheep: Packgoats ARE NOT a hazard to Bighorn Sheep

  1. Ken says:

    Thanks for presenting this very helpful information. I’m frustrated by how much bad information there is out there about packgoats and the risk they pose to wild sheep. Incidentally, I work right across the street from WADDL, and am acquainted with several of their staff and faculty….

    • Nancy Clough says:

      Spreading false information to further an agenda is rampant in our society. I am grateful for all the packgoat owners and Dr Maggie Highland who contributed to our packgoat study. It is the 1st attempt to gain accurate data on packgoats and our only true hope of combating the “wide beliefs” or false information out there. With luck packgoat owners will take their frustrations about the bad information, educate themselves on this issue and become a dissemination of current data. Stay up to date on land use issues in your local BLM and National Forest. Revisions for use and access to our public lands is easy to access on line or by calling your local office. Join the North American Packgoat Association together we are making a difference. Thank you for this article.

  2. Curtis king says:

    I believe that through proper education and awareness we can reach sensible solutions. The testing of our packgoats should be considered mandatory. Maintaining and keeping M-ovi free packgoats combined with following and fostering Best Management Practices will pilot the way to absolutely bullet proof recreational goat packing for generations to come. We can do this. We have been packing with goats in the Western United States since 1972 in and around core Bighorn Sheep habitat. There has never been a disease transmission occur between a pack goat and wild Bighorn Sheep, and there never will be.
    It is our responsibility to educate, train and mentor all pack goat users. Education and awareness is the key to keeping all wildlife safe for generations to come.
    ” Long Live The Pack Goat”
    Curtis King

    • Rebecca Schwanke says:

      I appreciate the low prevalence of M. ovi in pack goats, but until it’s zero, there is still some risk. Thanks Tom for the update on the latest research. After reading the journal article, I’m still looking for an explanation as to the quick mortality events in the bighorn lambs. Ideas? If mycoplasmas can be found in the gastrointestinal tracts (supported in human research), could this be a possible route to lamb mortality?

  3. Charles Jennings says:

    I used to hope for zero risk as well. But achieving that is an impossibility in the wild, especially since MOVI exists in mountain goats. Stress can have an adverse effect on Bighorn ewes being able to provide colostrum for their lambs and can result in lamb deaths.

    John Mioncynski has produced some very compelling data that shows that when Bighorns receive the proper amount of Selenium in their diet, either naturally or by supplementation, that the lamb recruitment rates sky rocket.

    There are several herds that are currently MOVI positive that have healthy lamb recruitment rates, one being in Montana, and one in Colorado to name a couple.

    It seems to me that nutritionally healthy herds mean healthy immune systems that can withstand a lot of “bugs”.

  4. Irene Saphra says:

    Captive Interspecies Co-mingling Studies

    Species co-mingled (# of animals) Bighorn sheep (died/total) % death # of studies conducted Bacteria isolated from lungs with pneumonia

    Domestic Sheep (DS) (39) 41/43 95% 7 M.haemolytica, B.trehalosi,MOVI, A.pyogenes,Corynebacterium

    MOVI-free DS (4) 1/4 (died after 90 days of co-mingling) 25% 1 M.haemolytica, B.trehalosi

    Domestic Goats, (7) 2/10 20% 2 M.haemolytica (2 of 5 died in 1 study)
    Movie Status not

    Domestic Goats, (6) 0/6 0% 2 NO DEATH from pneumonia
    known to be MOVI-positive (researcher killed the animals at the end of the study)

    Horse (3) 1/6 17% 1 Pasteurella multocida, Streptococcus zooepidemicus

    Cattle (6) 1/9 11% 2 M.haemolytica

    (Results from Foreyt: 1982,1989, 1990, 1994, 1996,1998, 2009; Onderka 1988; Besser 2012&2017)
    Death in Bighorn Sheep between 8 days and 3 months

  5. Becky Schwanke says:

    So much has been learned over these last few years pertaining to respiratory disease. I truly appreciate all your organization has done to encourage responsible pack goat ownership. Maintaining healthy animals and separation from wild sheep and goats is critical.

    So is Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae an issue or not? The answer is, it’s complicated.

    Working with domestic goat owners in Alaska, we have seen Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae persist in certain older goats, so people need to know it’s not something that’s just limited to animals under 6mo. It can be persistent in your herd and you may not know it. You may have periodic issues with kids coughing or a few that fail to thrive. Your herd may be clean, consider that a great thing.

    Given there are hundreds and hundreds of strains of Movi out there and very few of them have been studied in relation to wild sheep or goats, it’s still worth recognizing the presence of this bug can significantly impact wild populations. Not every strain is fatal. Not every strain is virulent. But some are.

    Through our efforts with domestic goat owners in Alaska recently, we have worked closely with WADDL and WSU to ensure their Movi PCR test is specific and sensitive to goat clade strains. It has been improved significantly in the last couple years. FYI, they’re still working on an accurate cELISA.

    So whether you choose to test for Movi or not, it’s still something we hope domestic owners will be vigilant about. Just as pack goat owners are dedicated to this way of life, some of us are dedicated to keeping any and all new strains of Movi out of wild sheep and goat populations.

    There’s surely common ground here. As we weather COVID-19 right now, we are hopeful everyone is paying close attention to how to stop the spread. Thankfully in the human health world, we can test AND treat COVID. Please be smart about where you go and how you feel. Asymptomatic carriers are out there. Be safe everyone. We are all connected.

    • Peter Wilson says:

      Thanks for you thoughtful response. What is your opinion then of the fear based ejection of pack goats out of the areas where sheep exist that is a current trend. It’s happening without conclusive science or genuine “risk” of any greater percentage than natural occurrence. It’s disheartening to have the groups you site above support and not care about our pack goat owners and including us in regulation with wool sheep which we simply don’t belong and yet those groups just allow what we do to be a “acceptable loss.” When you are genuinely looking at risk analysis of what has to happen for my goat to infect a wild sheep the percentage of possibility is so crazy low considering what has to happen is the following… He has to have movi (way less than 1% in testing results and all juveniles in pack goats tested), then he has to get lost (extremely rare), then he has to find wild sheep, then he has to be shedding movi, then, as you said, he has to have that certain strain, then the has to touch noses with them. The risk of lightning strike to those wild sheep is higher. Land managers asses risk of all things and I don’t think it’s a proper amount of risk to just ban us out of areas. It’s one sided, non inclusive, fear based decision making and not right to those of us it affects.

  6. Rebecca Schwanke says:

    Peter, you make some great points. As a biologist who’s been active in The Wildlife Society, I can tell you the professional blanket closure recommendations from wildlife biologists are not fear-based, they’re based on the uncertainly in what hasn’t yet been fully studied. What I mean by this is the only way to ensure no new strains of Movi are transferred to wild sheep and goats by domestics is to ensure the domestics are Movi-free.

    That said, I want to clarify, I a work with the Alaska Wild Sheep Foundation and my references above pertain to our experiences working with goat owners here in Alaska. We are in a much different situation than many in the Lower 48 states for both our domestic community as well as our wildlife populations (to date, no highly virulent fatal Movi strains have been identified in Alaskan wildlife, and no large scale die-offs have occurred up here). Further, in Alaska many owners/producers have pack goats, milk goats, meat goats, pet goats, wool sheep, and meat sheep all together in the same small farm/facility. Some have one type, but it’s more common they’re mixed. So here, we have seen much higher prevalence of Movi in certain herds, as high as 40% in some. So please be careful using the referenced prevalence rate of “way less than 1%” above. Based on our experiences here, it gives a false sense of security for the industry and individual owners. The only way to know if your herd is Movi-free is to go through multiple rounds of PCR testing. Once the goat serology test is back online, a full round of sero testing may also be useful in helping address whether your herd is completely Movi free or not.

    I hear you on the risk that your pack goats pose to wild sheep/goat populations based on your animal husbandry practices both at home and on the mountain. Pertaining to respiratory pathogens, you’re spot on, your animals likely pose extremely low risk to wildlife. What they leave in the soil is a different story.

    My personal feeling is we need to work together to further the science and define the risk, mitigating as much as possible through testing/certification. I’m not a fear monger, I’m a scientifically minded individual interested in advancing the testing science and understanding behind the results. For most pack goat owners, with no other goats/sheep, your path can and should be much different than for mixed herds/flocks.

    I would love to work with the Pack Goat Association in defining a testing protocol to achieve Movi-free status based on the latest science (like I am working on here in Alaska). I know there are others that share my opinion on this, and granted, there are some that are more weary. If you were to commit to working towards encouraging disease-free certification (sanctioned by your organization – and I’m talking not just Movi, but other pathogens you also test for and even report of symptoms of things you don’t test for), I would think this would best set you up for the option of re-opening access to the back country.

    Thanks for your time and willingness to have an open discussion on this.

    • Chuck says:

      The examples I provided in my previous comment to you, which demonstrated the marginalization of the other factors in disease expression by those in the wildlife community (specifically elk hoof & CWD), was apparently timely; as Idaho has just become the next state to test positive for CWD. Looking at all the available research, including that research into environmental contaminants and mineral deficiencies which continues to be marginalized as causal factors in prion protein diseases, I suspect a common link with a discovery of Elk Hoof Disease in the same area in 2019. Below is my comment to FEMA in their request for comment on the Teepee Spring Vegetation management project (following the Teepee Springs fire in 2015).
      See my comment linked here: https://chonchorealitymixer.wordpress.com/
      Excerpt of comment to FEMA:
      “Both the discovery of Elk Hoof Disease and CWD were in an area where they would not have been expected to show up if the diseases were spread solely by contact. Neither area was bordering regions experiencing discoveries of elk hoof rot or Chronic Wasting Disease.
      Before the Teepee Springs Vegetation Management Program moves forward, specifically the parts of the program that employ the use of herbicides or other chemicals, there should be more research done to rule out the possibility of chemical applications being a causal link in Chronic Wasting Disease and Elk Hoof Disease. As well, the causal link between pesticides and the expression of cancers and neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, and their prevalence in Idaho County populations should be further studied.
      Please review the studies and articles linked below and provide the research that adequately disproves their hypothesis, disqualifies their research findings and satisfies their requests for follow on research before moving forward with the chemical application portions of this project.”

      Side note: On its face, I think it is interesting that we are constantly told by forest and wildlife managers how important and vital forest fires are to the natural cycle; and then when it happens, they tell us that somehow, in the wake of these fires, the natural cycle is broken and chemicals must be applied to the landscape to set it right. And then when anyone suspects a connection to human and wildlife diseases (cancer, Parkinson’s, CWD, elk hoof disease, etc…) they, and the studies they present to demonstrate the causal link, are universally ignored. It is truly something to behold.
      Important to recognize as well (given the covid response that all the professionals in all the scientific fields uncritically accept), cancer kills far more people every year (to the tune of 600,000) and, I suspect, takes up more hospital beds than covid. (Maybe that will change as the ‘leaky vaccines’ continue to be administered and more virulent strains show up as a result).

  7. Chuck says:

    I just watched this interview https://nativememoryproject.org/animal/bighorn-sheep-declining-populations-the-selenium-hypothesis/ with John Mioncynski after learning, in one of the comments above, about his theory on selenium depletion in the soils of Bighorn Sheep habitat in the Wind River Range s being the primary culprit in their Big Horn Sheep die-offs. It is an interesting theory that is compelling. It is a theory that implicates other factors involved in disease expression in Big Horn Sheep that would support other mitigations measures being taken. I wonder if you are you familiar with this area of research and what do you think of it? Has this theory been disproved? Has anyone in this group seen evidence in the verbiage of any forest or wildlife plans put out by any agencies to suggest that mineral depletion in the soils is a contributing factor in this or any other prominent wildlife diseases?

    It has been my observation that most researchers in the fish & wildlife field have a single minded focus on pathogen presence as the “be-all-end-all” in disease expression. I think this leaves blind spots that allow for other contributing factors to go unresearched or understudied and ultimately left unmitigated. I can think of two other similar examples of this off the top of my head:
    1) The universal censorship of the alternate theory on BSE and other prion-protein diseases (CWD & CJD) put forth primarily by Mark Purdy: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/animal-pharm-mark-purdey/1112176064
    2) The implications of pesticide spraying in the forest as a factor in the prevalence of Elk Hoof Disease in Washington State (another situation that brings up concern with WSU and WADDL): http://jongosch.com/exploring-a-potential-root-cause-of-elk-hoof-disease/

    Revelations from the above research, such as that which implicates mineral depletion in forest soils as a factor in disease expression, might lead to other, perhaps more effective and less draconian solutions… such as through mineral supplementation in wild sheep habitat or through discontinuing practices in forests that exacerbate this problem. (This might include discontinuation of forest service sponsored aerial pesticide spraying operations or cloud seeding in wild sheep habitat. Both, I think, are being practiced in the Wind River range).

    While your argument for being scientific minded and not fear based I think is valid it doesn’t speak to the biases and limitations in your focus. (It is possible to be limited in perception and still be scientific). I also think the political apparatus that is inspired by the most prominently cited research (which is arguable the most well funded research and not necessarily the most compelling) is fear-based. I appreciate that you bring covid-19 into the conversation because I think the madness behind the tyrannical, overly sanitized, chemically dependent, chronically stressful and all-together unhealthy biosecurity state being built in the wake of this “pandemic” is being inspired by and modeled after what we’ve been seeing in the wildlife field. Both endeavors seem to be conditioning humanity to become less involved in our natural world and more dependent on addictive, toxic and trace mineral depleting technologies (i.e. computers, cell phones (w/ contact tracing & vaccine card apps), fit bits, GPS trackers, electric cars, cell towers and now ionospheric irradiating satellites that promise to blanket the earth with microwave radiation (to name just a few). What could go wrong? https://www.cellphonetaskforce.org/submission-to-fish-and-wildlife-service-on-the-american-bumble-bee/).

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