Track the Movement of Bighorn Sheep with DNA Analysis

Respiratory disease is the primary threat to bighorn sheep populations in the west, yet little work evaluating the relative contributions of genetics, environment and herd size has been conducted. Glacier’s sheep are one of the only moderately large natural populations of bighorns in the U.S. and as such can serve as a benchmark for understanding evolutionary patterns in the absence of translocations, widespread hunting and other interventions.

This project will use blood samples already collected from 98 bighorn sheep to evaluate the population structure and genetic health of bighorn sheep in and near Glacier National Park and help to understand the role of genetics and disease across multiple, mostly small, isolated populations of sheep.

Earlier work suggested that very little gene flow has occurred across a likely barrier of the St. Mary Lake Valley with its relatively thick forest and large lake, likely preventing bighorn pathogens in the north from reaching the southern population. However, the recent Reynolds fire may change these patterns.

Last year, DNA extraction kits were purchased and extracted for the 98 bighorn sheep samples. This project will provide the necessary funds to sequence the DNA samples to answer the questions about how the park’s flocks interact and the potential for disease resistance.

 

Photo: Connor Welles