As Montana seeks to manage the risk and stop the spread of brucellosis, hunters and landowners will be working together this fall.
Last year, cattle in a herd near Bridger tested positive for brucellosis. The infection was suspected to have originated in a herd from Emigrant in the Paradise Valley 25 miles north of Yellowstone National Park.
"Montana has been certified as brucellosis-free since 1985, and the recent occurrence of the disease has ranchers understandably concerned," said Jeff Hagener, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
Another positive test for the disease was identified in cattle earlier this year near Emigrant. Because it was the second case of brucellosis found in Montana within a 12- month time span, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is expected to revoke Montana’s brucellosis-free status.
That's unsettling news for the Montana livestock community, which now faces additional, costly testing of its cattle.
Recent tests results from the National Veterinary Services that suggest the brucellosis infection likely came from wildlife—and perhaps elk—compound the worry.
Brucellosis is a contagious bacterial infection in domestic animals, wildlife and humans worldwide. In Montana, brucellosis has only been detected in elk, bison and recently cattle in areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park. Brucellosis can cause pregnant cattle, bison and elk to abort their calves.
"It's easy to see why so many Montanans are asking more questions," Hagener said.
For more than 20 years, while FWP conducted low-level testing of elk for brucellosis exposure, most of the concern about possible brucellosis infections have centered on Yellowstone National Park bison.
"Some say that because brucellosis originally came from domestic livestock and doesn’t harm elk and bison populations, it is an agricultural concern, not a wildlife issue," Hagener said. "In fact, this is not an elk problem, nor a bison problem, nor a cattle problem. It’s a disease problem that should concern every Montanan, because it's in the state's best interest to foster and maintain a healthy livestock industry and healthy wildlife populations."
Hagener stressed that Montanans together need to do a better job of managing the brucellosis risk, which essentially means minimizing interactions between cattle and wildlife during the critical spring calving months when the transmission risk is high.
Since 1981, FWP has tested nearly 7,000 elk for brucellosis exposure, mostly in the Greater Yellowstone Area north and west of the park. The results of those tests show brucellosis exposure rates that range from 0 to 5.5 percent.
In 2006, FWP established a committee to expand and improve brucellosis surveillance programs across the state.
Last year, FWP expanded testing, with hunter and landowner help, in six key areas: the Madison, Paradise, and Shields valleys, and areas near Gardiner, Bridger, and the Gravelly Mountains.
This year, FWP will redouble efforts to collect blood samples from hunter-harvested elk in those same areas, and to include other nearby areas. FWP will seek to pinpoint the location of the disease in wildlife, complete wildlife and livestock risk assessment, and then determine if wildlife or livestock management practices need adjustments.
"Standing by in the face of today's uncertainties and risks with brucellosis is not an option," Hagener said. "Montana’s livestock industry and ranching families are too important to this state."
Hagener also cautioned that inoculating or slaughtering elk herds is not an option.
"On one hand, it's simply not feasible to vaccinate or eliminate entire herds of these wide-ranging wild animals," he said. "On the other hand, elk and elk hunting are culturally and economically important to Montana."
In FWP's view, everyone who has a stake in this matter—including ranchers, hunters, and representatives of federal and state agencies—needs to work together."Only then can we assess where disease transmission risk is highest, figure out how to reduce the risk, and pursue the elimination of brucellosis in both wildlife and livestock once and for all," Hagener said.