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The Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit

The University of Montana

Sarah Sells - M.Sc. Candidate - Wildlife Biology

Advisor - Mike Mitchell


Natural Science Building - Room 312

Phone: 406-243-4348



B.S.: Fisheries and Wildlife Science at Oregon State University, 2005

Broadly, my interests are in wildlife conservation and population biology. Since 2004 I have worked with a variety of fascinating species in dramatic surroundings, including Olympic marmots in the alpine landscape of Washington’s Olympic National Park, small mammals in surreal Honduran cloud forest, Sage Grouse in Wyoming’s windswept sagebrush lands, and Burrowing Owls in California’s stark far south. I moved to Zion National Park, Utah in 2007 where I worked with many taxa and soon found that the Southwest canyon country had truly become part of me. One of my major interests in Zion was the Southwest’s iconic bighorn sheep. Once lost from the park through extirpation, the bighorn were successfully returned through immense management efforts; yet, any herd’s future is uncertain due to the ever-present threat of disease.


Proactive management of pneumonia epizootics in bighorn sheep in Montana

Wildlife disease outbreaks can have major impacts on populations. Disease outbreaks in bighorn sheep represent an excellent example of the potential severity and long-term implications of disease on the conservation and management of a species. In particular, pneumonia outbreaks have greatly impacted bighorn herds, with new outbreaks reported in the West every year. After the initial die-off, which may devastate a population, the disease’s long-lasting effects often include years of low lamb recruitment. Consequentially, herds that experience outbreaks often are unable to return to former population numbers for many years, if ever, and usually require further management efforts such as herd augmentations. Disease management is therefore a major concern for bighorn biologists. However, disease management is usually reactive, as few tools exist to aid proactive management of wildlife diseases.

This project will provide a case study for developing risk and decision models for proactive wildlife disease management. My objectives are to:

  1. Collect data on past bighorn pneumonia outbreaks in Montana from records and through collaboration with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologists.
  2. Develop a risk model to predict risk of future pneumonia outbreaks based on assessment of past outbreaks.
  3. Develop decision models using a structured decision making process for identifying appropriate proactive management actions based on probability of disease outbreak.

Natural Sciences Room 205

Missoula, MT 59812