Environment Yukon officials plan to start monitoring the territory’s caribou for the respiratory bacteria M. ovi. Hunters can also request swab kits of their own to use after a kill, similar to the one pictured for testing sheep. (Submitted/Environment Yukon)

Environment Yukon starts new testing for bacteria in caribou

Environment Yukon officials say they are going to start monitoring the territory’s caribou for a respiratory bacteria that is considered a factor in the death of an Alaskan caribou.

Earlier this week Alaska’s Department of Fish & Game announced that Mycoplasma ovipneumoniae (M. ovi) may have been a factor in the death of a caribou from the Forty-Mile herd.

M. ovi is a bacteria that has primarily been found in big horned sheep, said Dr. Mary VanderKop, the Yukon’s chief veterinary officer. It attacks the cells that line the respiratory tract, damaging the tiny hairs responsible for cleaning air as it is being breathed in.

VanderKop said the bacteria can also be found in domestic sheep and goats.

In domestic animals it will cause coughing but usually clears. In wild big horned sheep it causes more severe health problems. “They develop pneumonia, they develop a lot of other problems. The youngsters fail to thrive. Everyone in the herd can be quite sick for an extended period of time,” she said.

The Forty-Mile herd moves seasonally into the Yukon mountains where it also shares the range of thinhorn sheep. VanderKop said the territory has been monitoring its wild thinhorn population for years and never found the bacteria.

News that an infected caribou has been found has the department expanding monitoring efforts.

“It’s quite unusual to see that it affects a member of a family that’s not closely related to sheep,” VanderKop said.

Now, whenever environment officials come across a caribou — such as during collaring or if a hunter brings in a head to be examined — the animal’s nose will be swabbed and tested for the bacteria.

Hunters can also request swab kits of their own to use after a kill.

“This is a bug that’s spread nose to nose and because caribou tend to hang out in groups, there’s a possibility that it could spread within caribou more so than moose because they’re fairly solitary,” VanderKop said.

Environment Yukon says there are no health risks to humans who eat meat from animals that have M. ovi.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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