Will Yellowstone Brucellosis Battle Extend to Elk?

The battle to eradicate brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone area may be extended to elk, as a $35 million provision in the proposed federal farm bill could enable long-term management of area herds. A Yellowstone brucellosis battle has been waged for decades, as the interests of stockmen, environmentalists and government officials have converged to create a tense situation where bison was herded back into Yellowstone National Park in the spring, put down at times, and generally seen as a nuisance when it comes to cattle. The theory is that bison carry brucellosis that can be transmitted to cattle — a highly dubious proposition — as the cattle industry and government officials work to eliminate the disease in the area. The greater Yellowstone area is the last pocket of brucellosis in the United States, so there’s plenty of interest in eradication. But bison management has proven to be messy, controversial and fruitless. Last month Yellowstone officials announced an end to research on bio-bullets that would immunize bison against brucellosis: after a pilot plan, it was determined that bio-bullets would be too expensive and just didn’t work very well. The latest farm bill — scheduled to be voted on in the House this week — allocates $35 million ($7 million a year for five years) to the Wildlife Reservoir Zoonotic Disease Initiative, which would map ways to address cattle diseases, including brucellosis. The worry is that wildlife management techniques would be applied to elk in the same way they’re applied to bison. And that has some elk hunters — a vocal bunch, to be sure — concerned. From The Missoulian:

“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?”…

“I’m trying to wake the hunters up before they lose their wildlife,” Kathryn 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 Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is getting control of wildlife agencies.”…

“The reason why the wildlife brucellosis issue hasn’t been addressed is because there’s no easy solution,” state veterinarian Martin 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.”

If you’ve followed the Yellowstone brucellosis battle over the years, you know how passions play out into a larger discussion of wildlife management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. With elk numbers declining in the area (whether due to drought or wolves), there’s understandably greater concern from elk hunters that further management could drive down the numbers further.

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