Abstract Background A key challenge for conservation biologists is to determine the most appropriate demographic and genetic management strategies for wildlife populations threatened by disease. We explored this topic by examining whether genetic background and previous pathogen exposure influenced survival of translocated animals when captive-bred and free-ranging bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) were used to re-establish a population that had been extirpated in the San Andres Mountains in New Mexico, USA. Results Although the free-ranging source population had significantly higher multi-locus heterozygosity at 30 microsatellite loci than the captive bred animals, neither source population nor genetic background significantly influenced survival or cause of death. The presence of antibodies to a respiratory virus known to cause pneumonia was associated with increased survival, but there was no correlation between genetic heterozygosity and the presence of antibodies to this virus. Conclusions Although genetic theory predicts otherwise, increased heterozygosity was not associated with increased fitness (survival) among translocated animals. While heterosis or genetic rescue effects may occur in F1 and later generations as the two source populations interbreed, we conclude that previous pathogen exposure was a more important marker than genetic heterozygosity for predicting survival of translocated animals. Every wildlife translocation is an experiment, and whenever possible, translocations should be designed and evaluated to test hypotheses that will further improve our understanding of how pathogen exposure and genetic variability influence fitness.