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GEORGE OCHENSKI: Elk management proposals are risky business

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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.

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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 oped@missoulian.com.

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