MOUNT EVANS, Colo. - Colorado Parks and Wildlife biologist Lance Carpenter and wildlife pathologist Karen Fox have initiated a study looking into a disease outbreak in mountain goats on the summit of Mount Evans.
The symptom - diarrhea. The cause - not precisely known. The result - a loss of an almost entire age class of kids between 2013 and 2014 and poor recruitment into the population since. The outbreak was not observed between 2014-18 like it was in 2013, but it appeared once again in 2019.
“Last October, we found seven kids with diarrhea and we removed one of those kids and took them to our health lab in Fort Collins for necropsy,” Carpenter said.
[WATCH] Video highlighting the work taking place for this study
“Through necropsy examinations, we have found a mix of bacteria and parasites, none of which single-handedly explain the severe losses in the herd,” Fox said. “We are hoping to identify what specific pathogens, and what combinations of pathogens, are present before, during and after an outbreak of diarrhea.”
To further investigate the roles of various pathogens, Carpenter started collecting fecal samples on July 23 to send to CPW’s health lab for testing. It is an intensive effort that will run to November, requiring samples to be collected five to six days a week from both nannies (adult females) and their young (kids), with and without diarrhea.
“The whole idea is to try to figure out what is going on, be able to treat it and get that recruitment back up,” Carpenter said. “Hopefully, after October we’ll have enough data and samples to determine what is causing this. If we don’t, we’ll continue next year.”
In 2015, Carpenter put 20 satellite collars out on nannies to look at habitat use by the mountain goats. During that study, if the mountain goats showed signs of diarrhea we could have used the location data to backtrack where those goats were to see if anything changed land-use wise that may have caused this diarrhea in the kids. However, during the study, there were very few kids that showed any signs of diarrhea.
“We can also take a closer look at certain types of bacteria such as E. coli, to determine if specific strains may be associated with diarrhea,” Fox said. “Hopefully, the results from this project will help us interpret the relative importance of each organism, giving us targets for treatment or management of the disease. However, if the results indicate that the pathogens we are finding are not associated with diarrhea, we can use the samples to look for uncommon or previously unrecognized pathogens.”
One pathogen that CPW is exploring as a cause for the diarrhea is E. coli. This bacteria can be found in healthy animals and people, although certain strains can be harmful, especially if exposure is at a high level. Heightened levels of E. coli are present in the environment at Mount Evans due to the heavy human traffic and the recreaters going to the bathroom all over the wilderness area.
Carpenter is marking the individual nannies and kids - either with paintballs, or the nannies already identified with satellite collars - to track them and their scat samples over time. It is important to the study to be able to trace the samples associated with the individual animal.
In 2013, the diarrhea was first observed in late August/early September. Last year (2019), the diarrhea was first observed in early October. The theory is as time goes on, they will see normal feces switching to diarrhea.
“As it starts to switch to diarrhea, hopefully we’ll be able to analyze and isolate what is actually causing this disease outbreak,” Carpenter said.
The diarrhea is deadly to the kids. It causes dehydration and damages the wall of the intestines. Bacteria can then enter the blood and spread to other organs.
Carpenter and Fox are working with a sense of urgency and trying to get a grasp on the disease before it spreads to other mountain goats across the state.
“We’ve seen a couple goats that have the same symptoms as our goats here on Mount Evans in (data analysis unit) G-4, over in G-15, which is west of Guanella Pass,” Carpenter said. “It seems like it started here and is kind of moving westward.”
Monitoring will also be important to ensure that the bighorn sheep sharing the same habitat do not exhibit these symptoms. Thus far, that has not been detected.
“Whatever is causing this may be mountain goat specific, which is good in the sense that we do not want to see this in our bighorn sheep” Carpenter said. “If we saw this in our bighorn sheep, we would have a really big problem on our hands.”