Bighorn sheep mortality related to pneumonia is a primary factor limiting population recovery across western North America, but management has been constrained by an incomplete understanding of the disease. We analysed patterns of pneumonia-caused mortality over 14 years in 16 interconnected bighorn sheep populations to gain insights into underlying disease processes.
We observed four age-structured classes of annual pneumonia mortality patterns: all-age, lamb-only, secondary all-age and adult-only. Although there was considerable variability within classes, overall they differed in persistence within and impact on populations. Years with pneumonia-induced mortality occurring simultaneously across age classes (i.e. all-age) appeared to be a consequence of pathogen invasion into a naïve population and resulted in immediate population declines. Subsequently, low recruitment due to frequent high mortality outbreaks in lambs, probably due to association with chronically infected ewes, posed a significant obstacle to population recovery. Secondary all-age events occurred in previously exposed populations when outbreaks in lambs were followed by lower rates of pneumonia-induced mortality in adults. Infrequent pneumonia events restricted to adults were usually of short duration with low mortality.
Acute pneumonia-induced mortality in adults was concentrated in fall and early winter around the breeding season when rams are more mobile and the sexes commingle. In contrast, mortality restricted to lambs peaked in summer when ewes and lambs were concentrated in nursery groups.
We detected weak synchrony in adult pneumonia between adjacent populations, but found no evidence for landscape-scale extrinsic variables as drivers of disease.
We demonstrate that there was a >60% probability of a disease event each year following pneumonia invasion into bighorn sheep populations. Healthy years also occurred periodically, and understanding the factors driving these apparent fade-out events may be the key to managing this disease. Our data and modelling indicate that pneumonia can have greater impacts on bighorn sheep populations than previously reported, and we present hypotheses about processes involved for testing in future investigations and management.