Watching hungry goats

Viral disease called 'orf' rumored to be in local population

Posted: Sunday, March 01, 2009

On one of those beautiful days in February, with lots of sun, comfortable winter temperatures and little wind, I wandered around up near the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The good weather had brought out hordes of skiers, snowshoers and strollers, along with a good sampling of Juneau's varied canines (and their unsightly deposits).

I walked out toward Nugget Falls on a well-trodden path, hoping to spot some mountain goats on their usual ledge on the far side of the falls. Yes, there they were, three of them. Two were nibbling something on some exposed, south-facing rock faces, and the third was snoozing down in the brush. A bit later, all three were foraging. It was interesting to note that, among other things, none of the assorted other humans in the area appeared to notice the goats.

Mountain goats descend from their summer range in alpine tundra down into the forest in winter. Near the glacier, the elevation isn't much above sea level. On our side of the mountains, goats commonly come down farther than they do on the Canadian side. That's because the snow on the other side is drier and the wind can blow it off the ground, leaving edible forage available to hungry goats.

On our side, the abundant, wet, heavy snow clings and clumps, leaving little exposed surface and little goat forage at upper elevations. So the goats on our local mountains are forced to descend, in order to find food.

I was concerned about a viral disease called "orf" or, more properly, "contagious ecthyma" that affects sheep, goats and musk oxen, especially. It is endemic in some populations of bighorn sheep in British Columbia and has been rumored to affect our local mountain goat populations.

So I got some information from Kevin White, of the Alaska Department of Fish & Game, and there are two Web sites - and This disease makes nasty lesions, chiefly around the mouth, so it makes eating difficult; some animals, especially young ones, may then die of starvation. Sometimes the lesions form near the hoofs and make the animal lame, too.

The disease is spread mostly by contact among animals or perhaps also by objects that the lesions touch, but the virus is said to live for years outside of an animal and be picked up later by goats that happen to use an area once used by infected animals. Once an animal is infected, it takes about a week for the lesions to begin, and they usually subside after a few weeks.

White said he's been told by the Fish & Game veterinarian that this disease is hard to tell, in the field, from another one (papillomavirus pr warts), so that reports of 'orf' around here may be exaggerated. He knows of only two confirmed cases in Southeast, but there have apparently been no systematic surveys for the disease among our local goats.

In any case, humans (hunters particularly) can pick up the virus by contact with the lesions of infected animals, and be sick for a few weeks, so it might pay to be aware of the potential problem. Fish & Game says that the meat of infected animals is suitable to eat as long as the infected areas are carefully cut away.

On my little foray near the lake, I also found a spot where a weasel had looped along, putting its hind feet right on top of the forefoot prints. This beast has snooped around the bases of shrubs and eventually dived down into a weasel-size hole in the snow. I imagined it had hopes of finding a juicy vole down there under the snow blanket.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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