A $35 million provision in the proposed federal farm bill has some wildlife advocates worried that cattle ranchers want to treat Montana’s elk the same as bison – as a disease threat to be managed.
Livestock and wildlife agency officials counter that they don’t want to herd or slaughter wild elk, but they do consider elk a risk to the state’s effort to eradicate brucellosis in cattle.
“I think it is a genuine concern, that we’re moving more and more toward managing wildlife in more domestic-animal ways,” said retired Boulder veterinarian Tom Roffe, who’s been watching the debate over brucellosis in Montana’s wildlife populations. “What does the comprehensive strategy really look like beyond just vaccinating? And why are we pissing away money on vaccines that in 30 years haven’t shown any success?”
The problem, according to the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is that the country around Yellowstone National Park harbors the last reservoir of brucellosis bacteria in the United States. The disease causes domestic cows to abort their calves, and used to be a devastating hazard to the beef industry.
Ranchers must test all cattle suspected of brucellosis infection before shipping them to market. Entire herds may be killed to block transmission.
The bacteria also infect elk and bison. In rare cases it can be transmitted to humans, where it causes a flu-like illness. For years, the risk that bison can transfer the infection to cattle has been the rationale behind preventing wild bison from migrating out of Yellowstone Park and into Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Federal shooters killed thousands of bison on Yellowstone’s borders in the past decade.
But a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in December noted that “although bison-to-cattle transmission has been demonstrated experimentally and in nature, it has not been reported in the (Greater Yellowstone Area).” Instead, 17 cases of cattle brucellosis infection in the 2000s were traced to elk.
The CDC report attributed these incidents to a variety of factors, including “population and density increases, changes in land management that created safe havens for elk, and reintroduction of wolves to the GYA. Other factors that might have had local or general effects include climatic and snowfall changes, reduction of habitat by urbanization, and increased use of motorized backcountry vehicles.”
Where this spills off the ranch and into the woods is APHIS’ stated commitment “to the successful elimination of brucellosis from bison and elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem.” Through a compact called the Interagency Brucellosis Management Plan, APHIS has forged agreements with both livestock and wildlife agencies in all three affected states.
And that’s got elk hunters like Kathryn QannaYahu angry.
“I’m trying to wake the hunters up before they lose their wildlife,” QannaYahu said from Bozeman, where she’s compiled a large website of documents on the issue. “This was a livestock disease that came here and got into the wildlife populations. It’s impossible to eradicate without sterilizing the environment. But all three states have to sign an annual MOU to keep their class-free brucellosis status. And that’s how APHIS is getting control of wildlife agencies.”
That manipulation shows up, according to QannaYahu, in increased demands for kill permits and late-season damage hunts on ranch land near Yellowstone Park, as well as the continuing supply of federal money to study brucellosis in wildlife.
And that’s where the farm bill provision comes in.
The Wildlife Reservoir Zoonotic Disease Initiative would fund a $7 million annual program funding research on brucellosis, cattle tuberculosis and similar diseases that transfer from wildlife. It’s been included in the previous two short-term versions of the Farm Bill, and could be approved for a five-year run in the legislation currently before a House-Senate conference committee.
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is one of the conference committee members. Spokeswoman Kathy Weber said Baucus had received a number of favorable reviews of the provision, including a letter signed by representatives of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Boone and Crockett Club, and Wildlife Management Institute.
“In the past four years, Max has held numerous well-attended farm bill listening sessions across the state,” Weber said in an email. “(He) has worked hard to make sure the bill strikes a good balance.”
RMEF spokesman Mark Holyoak said his group’s understanding was “the funding will develop a better vaccination for livestock” as a way to avoid the slaughter of wildlife to prevent spread of the disease.
Glenn Hockett is not so convinced. The Bozeman-based president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association argues that the economic risk of brucellosis is being over-played to maintain a funding supply.
“The reality is they need to un-demonize the disease,” Hockett said. “It’s not near the problem bovine virus diaherrea and other things are. Elk are also a tiny problem. I’m not saying there’s no risk of brucellosis from elk. But if you have ranch in elk winter range, you have a risk. There are situations where the risk is high. Brucellosis is a seasonally contagious disease, usually in the last trimester of pregnancy. What we don’t want to see is elk and bison in with cattle being fed in March, April and May.”
And artificial feeding, according to Hockett, is the real problem. He said feed lots in Wyoming and supplemental feeding programs in Idaho have encouraged unnatural co-mingling of cattle and elk, with resulting disease spikes. The December CDC report backs him up.
“That $35 million in the farm bill is creating an illusion that they’re doing something,” Hockett said. “The way to find common ground is to agree we want to protect cattle from brucellosis, and then work on a cattle vaccine. Would we try to vaccinate all the mosquitoes to protect your horse from West Nile virus? Or all the skunks and raccoons to protect your dog from rabies?”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife operations coordinator Quentin Kujula said the federal grant program isn’t likely to lay hands on any elk. But the problem of brucellosis in elk continues to grow.
“Livestock hasn’t seen infections from bison because of the no-tolerance zones and test-and-slaughter efforts,” Kujula said. “I understand some people think the things they opposed in the bison world would come to elk. But the elk presence has been different than the bison presence. There’s a broad recognition that there’s a brucellosis reservoir in elk. But we haven’t gotten the message from any of the livestock agencies that we need to do the same thing with elk.”
Instead, FWP research has focused on learning where elk calve and how they can be kept separate from cattle during crucial infection periods. It has used state Department of Livestock funding to catch and radio-collar 100 elk a year in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem to test for brucellosis presence. That five-year program is just about to end.
Kujula said hunting districts around Yellowstone have allowed a few late-season damage hunts. Last year, hunters took 13 elk in hunts after Feb. 15 – far from a big impact on the surrounding population. The effort was more to keep hunter pressure on elk herds and discourage them from moving into cattle areas.
About 5 percent of Montana’s cattle acreage and production comes from the Yellowstone area, according to state veterinarian Martin Zaluski. The state spends
$1.17 million a year on its brucellosis program there, testing for the disease and monitoring a Designated Surveillance Zone where cattle are under special observation.
Cattle raised outside that zone can be marketed as brucellosis-free to the rest of the nation. But those inside must undergo extra certification before they can be exported. And those expenses hurt the ranching economy, Zaluski said.
“The DSA could expand, or the range of brucellosis-positive elk could expand, and we’d lose more of that marketability we’ve worked so hard to maintain,” Zaluski said. “This will cost even more later if we’re not proactive.”
Nevertheless, Zaluski said the state Department of Livestock isn’t planning to gain more management authority over elk or other wildlife in its effort to control brucellosis.
“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. We don’t have a delivery mechanism that works for wildlife. We have been charged by the Legislature to address the issue of bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park. But it would be an unlikely scenario where the Department of Livestock would have greater responsibility in the management of elk.”
Yellowstone National Park officials decided last week to kill a proposal to shoot bison with “bio-bullet” vaccine doses, saying it was cost-prohibitive and ineffective. Before he retired, Tom Roffe spent a lot of time capturing wild animals for research with enclosures or dart guns. He said he understood the park’s reluctance.
“When you have an animal in hand and a syringe in hand, with animals that are used to handling, it makes infinite sense to vaccinate domestic animals,” Roffe said. “It doesn’t make the same sense when you’re talking about wildlife. There are many who do not see taking domestic actions with wildlife as a big deal. But applying a domestic animal paradigm to wildlife is something we shouldn’t take lightly. It comes down to values, and there’s always a cost.”