Brucellosis an ongoing concern around Yellowstone Park
Brucellosis (often called Bang’s disease after Dr. Bernard Bang, the Danish veterinarian who first isolated the causative bacterium in 1897) is the leading cause of abortion in cattle worldwide. It affected up to 25 percent of the cattle in this country until the advent of vaccination and control programs. The U.S. has been working hard to eliminate this disease and most states are now brucellosis-free. Exceptions include the three states surrounding Yellowstone Park.
Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have worked hard to eliminate brucellosis in cattle, and have nearly succeeded – except for the ongoing problem of infected wildlife coming out of Yellowstone Park. This is the Achilles heel, the obstacle that stands in the way of total eradication of this disease.
Tom McDonnell, Executive Vice President of the Idaho Cattle Association, has been involved in the debate over how to resolve this situation.
“The federal government wants to designate a brucellosis elimination zone around the park, rather than try to eradicate the disease in the elk and bison populations,” he says. “The problem with this is that it will be very expensive.”
At this point there is no attempt to control the disease except to manage it in cattle by vaccination.
“We met with the government people and their plan would be very harsh,” said McDonnell. “They plan to put in this buffer zone, and it would have to be permanent, because there is nothing in the plan to eliminate brucellosis in the wildlife. The cattlemen would have to put permanent electronic tags in all the cattle, and premise ID for all the ranchers. They want to have permits for any cattle movement. They could come and bleed our animals whenever they wanted to.”
McDonnell did some summaries to see what this plan might cost the ranchers.
“The first proposal in 2005, APHIS wanted to put the zone clear out to the Interstate,” he said. “I figured those counties, just from the Interstate to the Park, would take in 252,000 cows, according to the 2007 census. That doesn’t include stocker cattle; that would mean another 50,000 to 100,000 head of stocker cattle. This is the number of cattle in that area that would be impacted by the government plan, just in Idaho alone.”
McDonnell talked to Jim Magagna, Wyoming Stockgrowers Association, and Magagna said it would impact about 1,000 producers in Wyoming. In Montana Jay Bodner, at the Montana Stockgrowers Association, said they estimated it would affect about a quarter of a million cows in Montana.
“So we are talking about something between three quarters and a million head of cattle that would be affected by this zone,” says McDonnell. “Since there is nothing in the plan to address brucellosis in the elk and bison, this would be a permanent zone. The governor in Idaho told them it would be a lot cheaper for us if they’d just put a fence around Yellowstone.”
McDonnell grew up near Ennis, MT and his family still has a cow camp there, about 20 miles from the Idaho border. He’s been hunting in that area since 1968. It was always good hunting, until about six years ago.
“Now, when you hike out from camp all you see is wolf tracks,” he says. “If you do see elk, they are traveling fast, and moving down into the lower valley, trying to get away from the wolves.
“Now, down in the valley where there never were elk before, you often see 500-700 head of elk. They are going down there in that open valley for protection from wolves, often going right into the cattle herds.”
So the cattlemen are trying to control brucellosis, and the wolves are expanding and threatening the elk population and pushing them out farther and farther from the park onto private property to mingle with cattle – and spreading brucellosis. This will make it more and more difficult to control the disease.
When the wolves were introduced into the park the government didn’t think it through very well, according to McDonnell.
“They didn’t care about the impact this might have on ranchers,” he says. “They had an agenda, and it’s been working very well for expanding the wolf population!”
And in the meantime producers are faced with a brucellosis problem that has no workable solution unless the disease is directly addressed in the wildlife populations.
Gene Hardy, a Wyoming rancher who is on that state’s Animal Damage Management Board, says that brucellosis is an ongoing problem in Wyoming, with elk and bison coming out of the park.
“Some of the people who have moved into the country and built homes in elk territory think it’s great to feed the elk,” said Hardy. “The elk become somewhat domesticated, and the first thing you know they are intermingled with someone’s cattle. The brucellosis incidence in elk herds here is quite high. Some of the herds on the west side of the state have tested as high as 16 percent positive for brucellosis. The bison coming out of the park also have brucellosis.
“That has become a problem for us, because now Wyoming has lost its brucellosis-free status, just as in Idaho. Montana is fighting the same problem. A lot of their issues stem from bison moving out of the park through the north entrance into the Gardener Valley area, intermingling with cattle. This cost them their brucellosis-free status, also. Neither the Park Service or the USFWS are willing to address this issue in the wildlife.”
According to Hardy, they are trying to leave the burden of control on livestock owners, but it can never end because the source of the disease is not being addressed.
“I have a good friend here, a retired veterinarian, who has said for years that the only way we’ll ever resolve this problem is to kill all the elk,” said Hardy. “The public won’t accept it, but it’s the truth.”
When a cattle herd is infected, the popular solution is to depopulate, and replace them with healthy animals. Ranchers have to sacrifice the present herd, and start over.
“We’ve done that, right here. We’ve had to depopulate some cattle herds to get rid of brucellosis,” says Hardy.
“As many people have told me, we can only control issues like this (disease) to the extent that the public will allow. Today that isn’t very much, and it’s getting to be a larger issue all the time.”
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Outtagrass Cattle Co. cartoon by Jan Swan Wood for the Oct. 23, 2021, edition of Tri-State Livestock News