MOSCOW, Idaho (AP)
The University of Idaho has opened an investigation into whether the head of its Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center suppressed information from a 1994 study that appears to show bighorn sheep can get deadly diseases directly from domestic sheep on the open range. The center's leader, Marie Bulgin, is a past president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association who has testified before Idaho lawmakers and in federal court that there is no evidence of such disease transmission. In a statement issued Monday, the university said it "is aware of media reports about professor of veterinary medicine Marie Bulgin's comments on bighorn sheep research and takes seriously concerns raised by those reports. "A complete understanding of the facts is imperative and the university is investigating the matter thoroughly. Our scholarly and creative activity, which includes research, seeks to generate knowledge to strengthen the scientific, economic, cultural, social and legal foundations of an open, diverse and democratic society. "The people of Idaho count on us to be fair, diligent and candid, and we place the utmost importance on that responsibility. The university will take appropriate steps to ensure the integrity of its research." Disease transmission between bighorns and domestic sheep is a sore subject in Idaho, where Payette National Forest managers are considering reducing domestic sheep grazing allotments near Hell's Canyon to protect bighorns reintroduced there in 1971. Ranchers are fighting the proposed reductions in federal court. Bulgin has said there may be other factors, including stress, that result in bighorn sheep die-offs, such as ones where 300 sheep died in 1995 and 1996 in Hell's Canyon. Idaho bighorn numbers have dwindled by half since 1990, to about 3,500 animals. In interviews with The Associated Press and others, Bulgin said she was unaware of the 1994 study conducted by Caine center scientists on two dead bighorns that showed a possible link. The research never resulted in a paper being published. "It's not my research," she told the Lewiston Tribune. "I can't be sitting on something I didn't do. It wasn't my research, so I had no control over it." In the study, a bighorn ewe and ram from separate herds in Nevada and Oregon were seen mixing with domestic sheep in those states. Captured and brought to the Idaho Fish and Game Wildlife Health Laboratory in Caldwell, they soon died of pneumonia. Scientists from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and the Caine center used DNA tests to determine the parasites that caused the disease in the bighorns were biochemically identical to bacteria found in the domestic sheep they had mixed with. Transmission "likely occurred between the species on the range," according to an abstract obtained last week by the AP. David Hunter, a former veterinarian with the Fish and Game Department, was one of the authors of the unpublished paper. "Marie was a colleague of mine back then," Hunter, now of Bozeman, Mont., told the Idaho Statesman. "I just have trouble believing that with all the work we were doing she could not have known about that." Earlier this year Bulgin supported a bill backed by the wool growers to keep sheep ranchers from losing federal grazing lands used by bighorns. The Idaho Legislature passed the measure. Bill Foreyt is a Washington State University professor who has researched the disease connection between bighorn and domestic sheep. After Bulgin testified before the state Senate Nature Resource Committee in February, Sen. Gary Schroeder R-Moscow, asked Foreyt to critique Bulgin's testimony. "It is my opinion that essentially all scientists who work with bighorn sheep or have evaluated the scientific literature, dispute or ignore most of the testimony that she has given for the last several years," Foreyt wrote. Bulgin said her position on possible disease transmission between domestic sheep and bighorns is unchanged, and that she expects the university's investigation to be resolved quickly and in her favor. "I know there are reasons these bighorn are not flourishing," she said Tuesday. "You can say, 'Yeah, it's domestic sheep.' Well, I don't think we have proved that. I just haven't seen it yet."