Montana’s ranches are part and parcel of the state’s image – wide open spaces where cattle have long been the uncontested kings of the landscape. To preserve that status, public resources have been poured into the cattle industry in virtually every way possible, from developing water resources to destroying predators to subsidizing grazing fees on public lands.

But now, in what may be one of the more risky concepts yet to arise in the history of cattle ranching, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission is considering options to prevent elk from transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle by “managing” the public’s elk, not the private cattle.

The issue is complex, but it basically revolves around brucellosis, a disease originally introduced into Montana’s wildlife by cattle ranchers. While not a fatal disease, brucellosis can cause cattle to abort. Nationally, brucellosis has been virtually eliminated, but a “pool” of brucellosis continues to exist in the vicinity of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.


For many years, ranchers demanded that bison attempting to migrate from Yellowstone’s snowy confines in the spring be killed by state and federal agents or by limited numbers of hunters. The practice of slaughtering Yellowstone’s bison, the last genetically pure remnants of the millions that once thundered across the Great Plains, brought international outrage and shame to Montana. Gory pictures of blood-splattered bison corpses showed up on the front pages of papers around the globe as calls to boycott Montana tourism were raised.

Yet the slaughter went on – as did the expensive efforts by both the federal government and state livestock officials to annually haze the wandering bison back into the park, a brutal practice employing low-flying helicopters and ATVs to stampede the herds, often with newborn bison calves struggling to keep up.

In fact, during Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s time in office, more bison have been slaughtered than at any time in history since the great herds were driven to the brink of extinction. Ironically, it was all done in the name of preventing the bison from transmitting brucellosis back to the cattle that originally transmitted the disease to them.

But then a strange thing happened – brucellosis appeared in herds of cattle that had absolutely no contact with bison. Investigations eventually pointed the finger at wild elk as the source of the transmittal. As usual, the public’s wildlife was suddenly the focus of studies to determine how to manage elk to reduce or eliminate the new threat they presented to the cattle.

But elk, unlike the park’s bison, are abundant, widespread and much-loved by the public, many of whom fill their freezers and feed their families on elk every year. Consequently, the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks convened a special committee to consider options for dealing with the elk-cattle-brucellosis issue. According to reports, the group has put some 12,000 hours into its task so far with the goal of finding “management tools that will reduce and if possible eliminate the risk of transmission between elk and livestock, in a manner that considers the interest of livestock owners, landowners, wildlife enthusiasts, recreationalists and hunting groups.”

This week the group will bring its recommendations to the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission for consideration and possible approval. But those recommendations contain some alternatives that could stir considerable controversy since they primarily call for concentrating management of the elk rather than the cattle and, once again, contains the possibility that elk will now be hazed like the bison.

Among others, the alternatives also offer up the potential of reducing elk numbers, late season hunts during which pregnant cow elk may have viable calves, elk-proof fencing for so-called “high risk” areas and even providing public funding to fence off cattle-feeding areas. In the meantime, research and education efforts would be conducted by Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

But here’s the rub. Fish, Wildlife and Parks is funded primarily by hunting and fishing license revenue as well as considerable federal dollars generated by a tax on all hunting and fishing equipment. Those of us who pay those fees expect our dollars to go to maintaining and improving conditions for public fisheries and wildlife – not to subsidize an already heavily subsidized cattle industry.

The elk management proposals are risky business for both the agency and ranchers since they may engender significant public blowback. Killing bison for the cattle industry is bad enough, but extending the practice to Montana’s much-loved elk may prove to be too great a sacrifice to the sacred cow.

George Ochenski writes a weekly column for the Missoulian’s Monday Opinion page. He can be reached by email at

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Thank you to George Ochenski for writing about the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission’s misguided approach to solving our “elk problem.”

Under the banner of bruscellosis (cue fear and pandemonium) the Montana Stockgrower’s Association’s assault on wild bison has now turned to a new scapegoat: elk.

They’re barking up the wrong tree.

I believe, by and large, the Montana FWP does a great job in the very complex and politically heated arena of wildlife management in this state. I also believe ranchers are an important part of Montana’s economy and culture. That said, the Montana Stockgrower’s Association’s efforts to corrupt the FWP’s management of the public’s wildlife, and the FWP’s abdication of their responsibility to manage that wildlife for the public, are ugly black eyes on this great state.

Let’s forget about that fundamental problem for a moment, though. The FWP Commission says they need to entertain the fringe ideas and work to the center. For those of you concerned about keeping the cost of government down (all taxpayers I presume), the FWP is wasting our money even entertaining any of these plans, which, again, are to protect private cattle.

If you think vaccinating Montana’s thousands of elk sounds expensive (let alone immoral and biologically ludicrous), listen to some of the other “solutions” they’re entertaining. Implanting vaginal transmitters in wildlife (don’t laugh, they’ve already done it with bison). Hazing animals with helicopters. And my personal favorite, fencing in elk herds. These would be laughable notions if we didn’t have this state’s sad history of hazing and slaughtering bison as a track record.

Again, this isn’t about elk. As Mr. Ochenski put it, it’s about the sacred cow. The Montana Stockgrower’s are trying to frame this discussion early, as if even the least ridiculous of these suggestions is inevitable. As these discussions move forward, we will need to see if the FWP puts its foot down. If not, it will be incumbent upon Montanans to hold the FWP's feet to the fire.

Stockgrowers created this problem, and if the Montana Stockgrower’s Association wants to do something about it, the onus is on them to find ways to prevent cattle from coming in to contact with wildlife. They might start by not grazing their cattle on public land in the middle of elk habitat (also subsidized by taxpayers). There are pragmatic solutions here. Ranchers are a tough, independent and pragmatic lot. Why then does the Stockgrower’s Association continue to run to the government to fix their problem?

My suspicion is that this is less about bruscellosis and more about competition over land and grass. If this is the battle they want to wage, they will lose. Montana’s wildlife belongs to no one and everyone. It is a fundamental principal of the North American model of wildlife management, which is a model of success for the world. We erode those principals at our own peril.

Unfortunately, I think the most important issue is being left out here: ethics. These animals —which are such important parts of Montana’s unique heritage and culture — deserve better than this. No animal deserves this treatment, let alone two of North America’s most majestic and revered species.

Taxpayers, wildlife enthusiasts and hunters alike should be very wary of these conversations. Knowing Montanans, these discussions won’t go far. Speaking for myself as a sportsman, I will not tolerate my license fees being used to protect a private commodity to the detriment of our wildlife.


Bison and wolves and bears and lions and wild horses and ranchers and hunters:

Surely we can find a place for the bison to roam. This is one of the last best places, right? Tourists don’t come here to see cattle and fences. Both people living in Montana and visitors think of it as somewhat wild. A real heritage would be to preserve and restore the wildness of Montana.

Why are we so ruled by the oppositional opinions of ranchers and farmers and hunters and rancher politicians? You cannot confuse them with the facts. Per Lewis Carroll, "I have said it thrice, what I say three times is true." Some bison have been designated for placement (by FWP Montana) in other parts of the state. They are brucellosis free, tested, repeatedly so. Yet public meetings about the issue were attended almost unanimously by rancher-farmer crowds yelling, “No way!” Bison wander out of Yellowstone into traditional winter grazing ground, and ranchers protest and stockmen corral them, haze them and slaughter them. Instead of managing the cattle and ranchers around Yellowstone, ranchers want to manage the bison and keep them from going into a traditional outlet for grazing near Gardiner. The reports on any brucellosis of the past 50 years passing from bison or elk to cattle are anecdotal, unproven, and none documented, and if so more likely elk who are more numerous and routinely come and go by the thousands. But then elk are protected by sportsmen and FWP, farmed really, and ranchers probably do not want to step on that sacred set of toes.

The wolves do not significantly impact stock. Many ranchers are ranching on public land displacing wildlife (772 National Forest permits, 3776 BLM permits in MT) at a pittance in fees and complaining about bison or bison relocations or wolves or other predators or wild horses. Rancher mentalities in our western senators and representatives and governors and Interior Department subverted the intent and the law of the Endangered Species Act to politically manage wolves, in states particularly hostile to predators, versus scientifically, instituting an aggressive “management” (hunting) plan, really a vendetta driven by anti-wolf hysteria. Hunters repeat their anecdotal opinion (myth) that wolves are harming ungulate populations against evidence to the contrary. Hunters are the main pressure on elk and other wildlife. Predators are better and more natural managers of ecological systems, not FWP and other wildlife agencies, and not hunters or trappers. Ranchers repeat their anecdotal opinion (myth) that wolves are significantly impacting wildlife, really depredation is about .0048 percent. Wild horse management by BLM (Bureau of Land Management) or Bureau of Land Mafia if you will is too influenced by their opinion. BLM is largely manned/loaded by them. To protect wildlife, wildlife habitat, national forests and monuments, what some of the last best places have to offer, we had better stop deferring to ranchers and hunters. They are purely serving themselves. They are traditional encroachers on wildlife and habitat. We need to manage ranchers, sportsmen and other encroachers, like development right up to wilderness edges.


Gadfly, pretty simple, hunters via licence revenue and pittman robertson dollars contribute the dollars that go to wildlife management nationwide. Ducks Unlimited has contributed multiple 10s of millions for habitat that is enhanced for other non huntable species. Folks like you that want to snap photos are not paying the freight here..

You try to baffle with BS. Most Sportspeople have no problem with wolves as long as they are managed, you have a utopian sense of your own world view, kind of a Jurassic Park mentality.

I applaud your idealism, but you are on the wrong side side of history.


He's right about one thing, they start messing with our elk like they do the bison there will be h#$@ to pay.

Matthew Koehler
Matthew Koehler

BobbyLee: Just wondering, but was brucellosis not originally introduced into Montana's wildlife by cattle ranchers? If not, where did it come from?

If it's true that brucellosis was originally introduced into Montana's wildlife by domestic cattle, then you appear to be upset with Mr. Ochenski for simply writing a true and accurate statement of fact.

Here's some more brucellosis info for your reading pleasure BobbyLee:


No slant in this article at all:

"a disease originally introduced into Montana’s wildlife by cattle ranchers"

Just wondering, is there any industry in Montana that Ochenski does like. Or can we just expect him to go down the list, denigrating each one as he sees fit? I know, I'll bet he likes windmills. Windmills that need coal to manufacture them, and subsidize them when they don't work, which are built by guys who ride in big pick-ups and eat.. you guessed it; beef.

So why don't you tell us what you want Ochenski, if you're so darn smart n' all. What should be done about brucellosis? Let it run rampant until every bovine in the bloody country gets it? Or is your slanted bitchin' just designed to sell newspapers? That would be hypocritical wouldn't it? Paper comes from trees after all. That's another industry you don't like.

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