The powerful livestock organization R-CALF has written to the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture urging that a program be implemented to rid the Greater Yellowstone area of brucellosis. This includes Yellowstone Park. The means they suggest for doing this are draconian.
According to a story today by Brodie Farquhar in the Casper Star Tribune they include:
- Mandate brucellosis testing of bison in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
- Work toward eradication of brucellosis in Yellowstone bison by multiple means, including but not limited to trapping, testing and vaccinating bison in that area.
- Work with the National Park Service and USDA Wildlife Services to control the size of bison and elk herds in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
- Continue brucellosis testing, vaccination and surveillance where it already occurs and implement surveillance in all states where cattle are present.
- Maintain a national brucellosis surveillance/vaccination program for livestock disease traceback purposes.
- Redirect funding for an animal ID program to pay for ongoing and existing brucellosis surveillance/vaccination programs.
Brucellosis is a non-native disease that used to infect many cattle in the United States. It was passed to Yellowstone Park bison in the early 1900s by cattle brought into the Park to supply milk. Since then the bison passed the disease to elk.
While an unknown percentage of Park bison and elk are infected and are infectious, the bulk of the infection has long since moved south to Wyoming where it is perpetuated by the numerous winter feedlots for elk that are operated by Wyoming Game and Fish and also the federal government’s National Elk Refuge at Jackson, Wyoming.
Wyoming elk have since passed the disease back to cattle in both Wyoming and borderline cattle in Idaho, causing both states to lose their “brucellosis free status,” although both states have since regained that status. Much is made of this status, but it appears to be primarily a political measure designed to secure objectives of the livestock industry.
When Wyoming lost its brucellosis free status, the governor convened a panel that recommended that instead of closing the feedlots, a “test and slaughter” program for elk be set up. It began last winter near Pinedale, Wyoming at the Muddy Creek feedground. When Idaho lost its brucellosis free status, the Idaho media barely covered the event, most likely because the livestock industry could find few political objectives it could accomplish in Idaho.
Brucellosis can be passed to humans where is causes undulant fever, a hard to cure bacterial disease. It is very difficult for humans get get brucellosis unless they drink unpasteurized milk from infected livestock or acquire get it in veterinary accidents. Most cases in the U.S. today are among immigrants who get it from drinking unpasteurized goat milk.
Montana has been most aggressive in preventing the spread of the disease. Montana does this by keeping bison strictly confined to Yellowstone Park, although it ignores brucellosis in elk, the most likely source of wildife-to-cattle infection. The incidence of brucellosis in Montana elk is low, however, because Montana does not feed elk. Montana has been long criticized for its handling of bison because it is not clear how the bison could give the disease to Montana cattle because all but a few private cattle behind fences have been removed from the area around the Park.
Beside keeping bison confined to Yellowstone Park, the only measures being actively taken, until Wyoming’s “experimental” test-and-slaughter experiment, has been vaccinating cattle and elk against brucellosis. Vaccinating cattle is relatively effective, but Wyoming’s long term program vaccinating elk has had little or no discernible effect. Scientists are trying to develop a vaccine that is more effective with both elk and bison.
Conservationists have strongly urged letting Yellowstone’s bison roam unmolested in cattle-free areas adjacent to Yellowstone and have Wyoming close down its elk feedlots which perpetuate the disease, rather than testing and killing elk. A number of lawsuits are underway and the Buffalo Field Campaign has for years tried to stop Montana from slaughtering the bison that leave Yellowstone Park in the winter, instead urging Montana to give habitat to the bison in the cattle-free zone outside the Park.
In Wyoming, some sportsmen who fear the loss of elk numbers to starvation, have strongly supported keeping the feedlots, even urging that elk be fed more. An example was the recent “hay day” at Jackson. Story in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. The National Elk Refuge has abandoned the feeding of hay and opted for alfalfa pellets because they are more efficiently spread to feed elk and they tend to concentrate the elk less than the hay. Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife – Wyoming has been the sportsman group in favor of continued feeding, with other groups non-committal or strongly in favor of restoring natural winter range for elk in Wyoming, but that proposal again runs into livestock industry opposition.
Because Wyoming politics seems to bring effective action on the issue to an impasse, it has been suggested that the state’s strong antagonism to wolves is being used as a diversion tactic to keep elk supporters divided and ineffective, grouping them into “feeders” and “natural winter range” advocates, and “pro-wolf” and “anti-wolf.”
Meanwhile the actions of R-CALF and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agency APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service) indicate that the livestock industry is trying to make and end run around everyone to try to take control of wildlife in Yellowstone Park and in the states too. Wyoming’s Governor Dave Freudenthal, who has been an anti-wolf, “feeder,” may be belatedly waking up to the threat of APHIS, see “[Wyoming] Gov blasts federal brucellosis proposal.”
Whether it is a federal plan or a state plan to test and slaughter elk or bison, there is little evidence that this is an effective route in reducing brucellosis because the testing is inaccurate. Elk and bison who test “positive” for the disease may or may not have the disease. The presence of antibodies to the infection only means they have been exposed to it, much like a person who has had influenza or another infectious disease and recovered. The actual bacteria can be cultured by a slow and expensive effort that is not suitable for a test and slaughter program. Not only are there a lot of “false positives,” there are “false negatives” who have active disease and slip through test-and-slaughter. These are most likely recently infected elk.
The only proven method to keep brucellosis out of cattle from livestock is to prevent unnatural, and perhaps some natural, winter concentrations of bison and elk, and to vaccinate cattle or keep them away from bison and, particularly, elk. The former is done but not the latter because elk are a valuable big games species. Bison hunting has not developed due to a variety of political complications mostly related to their primary residence in national parks — Yellowstone and Grand Teton.
I have written hundreds of articles on this issue and the only constant I can find is the livestock industry and its set of values that is incompatible with both wildife and the philosophy of national parks. This is summed up by the statement by Dennis McDonald, immediate past-president of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association and now representing Region I (Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon) on the R-CALF board of directors: “I view Yellowstone as a large ranch.”
The wintertime hazing and slaughter of bison by the Montana Department of Livestock in the cow-free area just west of Yellowstone Park seems to be irritating more and more residents of the area who fear for their safety and their property-rights.
I concluded several years ago that real factor behind all of this is not disease, but a values conflict between the livestock industry who wants to gain control of wildlife and exert its cultural dominance over residents of Montana and Wyoming, and the rest of the population who are poorly organized and confused by the various contradictory narratives (stories justifying policies) spun out by livestock bureaucrats, conservationists, politicians, some sportsman groups. These stories are about wildlife, starvation, disease, wolves, states rights, and hunting.
They generally miss the mark. The cattle industry is behind all of it.
Brucellosis today is a real infection, but its ultimate cause and effects are political, not biological.