By M. Jeff Hagener, Director FWP
Months after the end of Montana's 2012 hunting season, nine licensed hunters on a public late-hunt roster were offered the opportunity to harvest elk from private lands in southwestern Montana. Over the course of about three weeks in March, the hunters took eight antlerless elk from the Paradise Valley.
The hunt marked the first time this type of recommendation was set into play. And it's perhaps the most controversial suggestion crafted by a group that worked for six months to agree on ways to manage the risk of the transmission of brucellosis from wild elk to domestic cattle in areas north of Yellowstone National Park.
Some 30,000 southwestern Montana elk spend parts of their lives on private lands there where ranchers work to make a living pasturing cattle in country designated as a "brucellosis surveillance area". The 6,700 square-mile area charted 90,440 hunter days afield last year. Few areas are more popular among Montana elk hunters.
In part, the hunters were called in March to get a herd of 500 elk to move on, or to disperse, far away from livestock concentrated in winter-feeding pastures.
In previous weeks, in places where elk and cattle were "commingling," FWP found success in putting other working group recommendations into action, including the employment of riders on horseback to haze elk. FWP also gave kill permits to a landowner who ended up not needing to use them, helped to build fence, and authorized more hazing and another dispersal hunt to keep elk away from cattle.
Calling in the hunters week by week succeeded much like the 12-member working group grudgingly hoped it would.
The elk moved on.
Brucellosis in domestic cattle is being effectively controlled and subdued with sound veterinary medicine based on a system of vaccination, quarantine, testing, and, when necessary, killing cattle exposed to brucellosis. The disease is caused by bacteria that targets pregnant cows and results in aborted young. Today, every state in the nation has the U.S. Department of Agriculture's brucellosis "class free status" seal of approval for livestock. Montana was reinstated into the club in 2009, a few years after three cases of brucellosis exposure were tracked back to elk.
Hospital-like triage won't pencil out for elk. First, no effective wildlife vaccine exists. Second, with or without a vaccine, think helicopters, fixed-wing airplanes, all-terrain vehicles, spotters, sharp-shooters, net guns, tranquillizing drugs, syringes, needles, autoclaves, radio collars, GPS, computers, blind corrals, holding pens, quarantine areas, feed by the megaton, and a landmass larger than Connecticut with seven mountain ranges, six substantial river drainages, and 30,000 elk to capture and test. It would be formidable at best.
FWP's 21st century focus, then, is based on some very basic, Montana-made recommendations from the working group that spent about six months on building, tearing down and rebuilding brucellosis risk management recommendations.
The 2013-14 proposed work plan from the Elk Management Guidelines in Areas with Brucellosis Working Group was recently presented to the Montana Fish & Wildlife Commission. It continues the risk management course set in motion last winter and again calls for the oversight of local working groups, should any local folks want to lend a critical eye to proposed activities. None have yet, but creating local working groups is a high priority for FWP.
Key work plan efforts for 2014 include providing landowners resources for hazing and fencing to help keep elk away from livestock from January to June, the high-risk months for transmitting the bacteria. It also sanctions limited, strategic and surgical late season dispersal hunts and landowner kill permits when events demand.
Make no mistake, FWP has significant skin in the game on lands where the specter of brucellosis hasn't given in. When considering all the twisted plot lines of brucellosis, FWP's work is tied to keeping southwestern Montana elk robust and welcome on private land habitats, and to helping the livestock industry remain strong, because each is vital to our culture and economy.
For information or to comment on the work plan, visit FWP's website at fwp.mt.gov. Click "Elk Brucellosis Work Plan." Comments are being accepted through 5 p.m. on Sept. 13.