Some wildlife advocates worry a considerably rewritten wildlife disease provision in the final version of the federal farm bill will make it much harder to track livestock agencies’ efforts to control wild elk.
President Barack Obama signed the five-year, $956 billion farm bill Friday. Earlier drafts of the legislation included a specific provision for a Wildlife Reservoir Zoonotic Disease Initiative, creating a $7 million annual grant program funding research on brucellosis, cattle tuberculosis and similar diseases that transfer from wildlife.
The program worried some Montana wildlife advocates, who feared it would widen the divide between hunters and ranchers.
The final 949-page draft dropped that provision and its budget. But another section called the Competitive, Special and Facilities Research Grant Act included a line calling for vaccine research to control “pests and diseases (especially zoonotic diseases) in wildlife reservoirs presenting a potential concern to public health or domestic livestock and pests and diseases in minor species (including deer, elk and bison).” That goes into a grant program authorized to spend about $3.5 billion over five years.
The problem, according to people like Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, is whether some of those grants will go toward the eradication of brucellosis in wildlife. Attempting to do so could devastate Montana’s wild elk herds without much benefit to its cattle industry, he said.
Brucellosis causes domestic cattle to abort calves, and has been eliminated from all the United States except the area around Yellowstone National Park. Cattle operations in those parts of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming must put their livestock through expensive testing and vaccination before they can export them to other markets. Montana alone spent about $1.7 million last year to prevent the disease, according to the state Department of Livestock.
Wild bison and elk contracted brucellosis from domestic cattle, and now can pass the disease back to uninfected herds. That risk has led livestock agencies to demand strict control of wild bison movements out of Yellowstone, including the slaughter of thousands of animals in the past decade. The federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has published its commitment to eliminating the disease in wild bison and elk.
“Some of the people likely to get this money have been doing work on elk vaccines, and I think that’s a complete waste of time,” Hockett said. “That’s a big-time deal, and it involves capture, test and slaughter of hundreds of elk. And you still can’t vaccinate yourself out of brucellosis in wildlife. You can protect the cow, and that’s where we might have common ground.”
But removing the word “brucellosis” from the legislation will make it much harder to track those efforts, he said.
“At least with the older version, you could search and find those words,” Hockett said. “It’s up to us to figure out who is applying for this money. How else does the public stay informed about how the money might be spent?”
State Veterinarian Martin Zaluski said his agency is looking for a solution that works for both cattle and wildlife.
“The reason why the wildlife brucellosis issue hasn’t been addressed is because there’s no easy solution,” Zaluski said. “We don’t have a vaccine that’s effective enough, and don’t have a delivery mechanism that works for wildlife. We partner with (Montana) Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but it would be an unlikely scenario where the Department of Livestock would have greater responsibility in the management of elk.”