Jackson Hole, WY News

[Part 18 in an ongoing series on wildlife diseases in greater Yellowstone that concludes at the end of 2014 — Eds.]

Yellowstone’s chief scientist David Hallac was driving home to Mammoth from Bozeman, Montana, last Sunday when he encountered this sight at the southern edge of Paradise Valley well outside the national park: More than 100 wild elk feeding on hay in close quarters with domestic beef cows.

How ironic, he thought.

Only weeks from now, Montana, with tacit approval of the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, will force Yellowstone to commence another bison killing season.

Perhaps 900 of the popular national park icons will be gunned down or shipped to slaughterhouses in what has become a bloody, contentious ritual.

There has never been a documented case of Yellowstone bison transmitting the bovine disease brucellosis to domestic cattle. Still, 7,800 bison have been killed since 1985 for heeding their ancient migratory instincts and leaving the park — the same as brucellosis-infected elk do — to go into Montana.

As Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and APHIS know, every single case of brucellosis transmission, wildlife-to-cattle, has come from infected wild wapiti.

The proliferation of brucellosis-infected elk is a chronic animal health issue in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It is worsened by 22 Wyoming-operated elk feedgrounds and the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole and abetted by APHIS’s sister agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Forest Service, which allows some of its public lands in Wyoming to be used for controversial feedlots.

Recently APHIS, knowing the National Park Service wanted the National Academies of Science to conduct an extensive review of disease management protocols for wildlife and livestock in the tri-state region, beat it to the punch.

Montana wildlife advocate Kathryn QannaYahu does not believe APHIS made the pre-emptive request to resolve glaring inconsistencies and contradictions in its own policies relating to bison, elk, brucellosis, chronic wasting disease and cattle.

Instead, it’s an attempt by APHIS to obfuscate public scrutiny of its heavy-handed mandates resulting in needless slaughter of bison, its unachievable goal of brucellosis eradication, fear tactics it has applied to ranchers and the blind eye it has cast on the most troubling known reservoirs of disease — Wyoming’s 23 feedgrounds.

In 1998, the last time the National Academies reviewed brucellosis policies, Montana’s entrenched intolerance toward park bison, driven by APHIS, was deemed problematic and wasteful of millions of tax dollars.

Now 16 years later, more is known. Better forensic capabilities identified elk as being responsible for wildlife-to-cattle brucellosis transmissions.

Also known and acknowledged by wildlife and livestock officials in Wyoming is that Strain 19, a vaccine developed to protect cattle and reduce the prevalence of brucellosis in elk, has been ineffective.

Millions of additional tax dollars have been squandered operating Wyoming’s test and slaughter program with elk at the feedgrounds, affirming assertions that brucellosis persistence isn’t likely to be reduced until elk feedlots are shuttered.

The 1998 National Academies’ findings, critics say, were overly optimistic in suggesting an effective vaccine and a method of dispensing it to thousands of bison, tens of thousands of elk and other wildlife species that carry brucellosis and to hundreds of thousands of cattle was possible.

Experts today say eradication is impossible, as there exists no viable, cost-effective and publicly acceptable eradication scenario for brucellosis in wildlife. Nor is any in sight.

The National Academies’ new study comes at the same time federal and state agencies in Greater Yellowstone are rewriting the Interagency Bison Management Plan because the old plan is grossly out of date.

APHIS’s attempt to steer the National Academies’ scope of scientific inquiry caught even agencies in Wyoming and Idaho off guard.

“It’s vitally important that NAS probe and ask the right questions so that we are led to solutions rather than to more intractable conflict,” Yellowstone’s Hallac says. “Asking the right questions means making sure the right people with the right expertise and appropriate background are on the review panel.”

Critics say that if the NAS is tasked only with approaching brucellosis as a “wildlife problem” pinned on the backs of bison — and not considering the health of wildlife at an ecosystem level — then the region is doomed to repeat the same failed policies that harm not only wildlife but the public’s trust in government.

Columnist Todd Wilkinson has been writing about environmental issues for nearly 30 years.

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(4) comments

Robert Wharff

Why is it that the title of the article deals with bison; yet, the author brings elk into the debate? Could he possibly have an agenda?

Furthermore, the Wyoming test and slaughter program might not of had an effect on brucellosis persistence; however, it did significantly reduce the prevalence rates.

The test and slaughter program worked. What wasn't clear was how a similar program could be implemented in the Parks. Without the ability to address reservoirs of elk within the Parks, there is no reason for Wyoming to continue the test and slaughter program as the Park elk would re-infect Wyoming's elk with the disease.

I do agree with the author that eradication of Brucellosis is highly unlikely with the current tools and protocols in place. Until something changes, the 23 supplemental elk feeding programs remain as one of the only tools available to stop comingling of livestock and elk, thereby containing Brucellosis within a manageable and discernible area.

Todd Wilkinson

Bob,
Your assertion that test and slaughter "worked' is challenged mightily by a number of prominent experts specializing in wildlife conservation and wildlife veterinary health. Test and slaughter has, in fact, involved huge expense yielding not much bang for the taxpayers' dollars in terms of truly addressing brucellosis persistence (and dispersal of disease as infected animals move away from feedgrounds and intermingle with members of other elk herds). To refresh your memory, read again my column that discussed the findings of vet Brant Schumaker that represents a devastating rebuttal to your assertions about the value of test of slaughter: http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/opinion/columnists/the_new_west_todd_wilkinson/states-still-spreading-brucellosis-foolishness/article_9ee58b31-971c-5ce9-aaee-44e25c4bd791.html

Second, your contention that infected park elk pose a threat to "reinfecting Wyoming's elk with the disease" is absurd. The persistence of brucellosis in elk in Grand Teton and the southern tiers of Yellowstone relates to the feeding of elk on the National Elk Refuge and nearby feedgrounds. Artificial human boundaries drawn on maps are meaningless to elk. The disease problem emanates from its source.

Third: Elk are THE wildlife vectors for brucellosis transmission to cattle and it is dishonest for Montana to be pointing the finger at bison.

I just learned today that the National Academies of Science is taking a comprehensive look at brucellosis (cause, persistence, spread and prevalence) in the entire Greater Yellowstone region. What it means, if the analysis is done honestly and we should expect nothing less, is that elk and the biggest reservoirs for brucellosis infection will for the first time be intensely scrutinized.

For the record, tell us: When chronic wasting disease shows up on the Elk Refuge and Wyoming 22 state-run feedgrounds—CWD is closing in as recent tests in mule deer confirm—who will Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife be pointing the finger at?

Wolves? Sorry, one part of my series on wildlife diseases address that too: Wolves are actually regarded as allies in slowing the spread of wildlife diseases. http://www.jhnewsandguide.com/opinion/columnists/the_new_west_todd_wilkinson/do-wolves-cougars-help-curb-diseases/article_cc4458c0-08fe-55f2-ab4a-a1852d382352.html

Robert Wharff

Todd, the test and slaughter program was effective, whether you like it or not. The data demonstrated that prevalence rates were substantially reduced. The cost could have been significantly reduced simply by using volunteers and not WY G&F supervisors to trap and work the elk. The problem still remained that if elk feed grounds were cleaned up other areas (Parks) protect elk from test and slaughter practices. Therefore, Wyoming would have continued to reduce elk under it's management and Parks would have continued to protect elk and Brucellosis.

How can you say that "Park elk pose a threat to "reinfecting Wyoming's elk with the disease" is absurd."? So are you saying that Park elk do NOT spread brucellosis? Now, who is being absurd or truthful.

I never disagreed with your point about elk being the vector for Brucellosis transmission, I questioned why the title of your article focused on bison and you expanded the article to include elk? Furthermore, now you are bringing in CWD. Yes it is a disease, but what does that have to do with this article? The Brucellosis issue is complex enough without bringing in all of these other issues.

You brought up CWD and assumed that it will show up on the National "Elk Refuge and Wyoming's 22 state run feed grounds and asked who will Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife be pointing the finger at?" I didn't realize that Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife had pointed the finger at anyone or anything. What I do recall is that Wyoming Sportsmen for Fish & Wildlife commissioned a study from a retired G&F employee that had ran the elk feeding program in the Jackson area to determine what impacts would occur if the supplemental feeding programs were ended. The mass starvation would significantly reduce elk numbers as well as other species which would be forced to compete with elk for what limited winter range remains available for wildlife. While no one wants CWD (other than anti-feed ground advocates) to show up on the feed grounds neither does anyone want to see elk starved to death. That is a certain outcome, whereas the threat of CWD is just that; a threat. Elk appear to be more resistant to CWD than deer.

Finally, you bring up wolves and claim that they help 'slow the spread of wildlife diseases". I would contend that wolves have helped disperse Brucellosis into new areas. Furthermore, I would also contend that wolves are carriers of Brucellosis. What happens if CWD is also carried and/or contracted by wolves? There are far more unknowns related to wildlife diseases than there are known information. Speculation on your part doesn't warrant a crisis.

Back to your issues with Brucellosis and bison. I actually agree with you that his seems out of line with what the data supports. Bison can and do contract Brucellosis; however, I am also unaware of any incidence wherein a bison has been documented to have infected a bovine. Your hatred for elk feed grounds caused you to blur the line between two very different issues.

Todd Wilkinson

Bob,
I have no hatred for elk feedgrounds. Indisputable fact: They are the largest well-identified source for brucellosis persistence in wildlife and its spread in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. They also exacerbate the potential threat that CWD poses to wild elk. I am pro healthy wild elk, not anti-feedgrounds. I base my conclusion on what scientists who spent their entire careers in animal health tell me. Wishing it weren't so doesn't make the problem or the reality go away. Shooting the messengers doesn't either. Trying to portray those who apply scrutiny to the feedgrounds as somehow being hateful of feedgrounds or anti-hunting is false.

Bison and elk are not two different issues—nor are CWD and brucellosis, nor is there a distinction that can be drawn between "Wyoming elk" and "Montana elk." Greater Yellowstone is an inter-tangled web of ecological processes, including animal migrations that extend over vast areas of landscape and flow as rivers do across state lines. Treating these things as separate issues is the thinking of biology as practiced a century ago. It is like treating blood circulation problems, blindness and heart issues in the human body separately without grasping that the root of the health threat is the source: diabetes. There is a reason why there is broad consensus within the scientific community that congregating large numbers of wildlife unnaturally around artificial feed is a bad idea.

There also isn't a respected scientific thinker I know who advocates suddenly ending artificial feeding in Wyoming but rather slowly weaning elk off of it. But first there has to be recognition there is a problem. it's clear that you don't think there is. I'm not gonna change your worldview but I will continue to challenge your windshield biology when it is contradicted by established science.

This business of you trying to blame wolves for brucellosis is...well...you know better, Bob, and it only makes you look foolish. The days of Little Red Riding Hood are past. If you want to make a diabetic better, you go to the source of the problem and manage the diet. We know what the main source of the brucellosis problem is in Greater Yellowstone. And it's the feedgrounds you defend.

Time will tell if CWD is, as you say, nothing to worry about. Everyone who loves Greater Yellowstone's famous elk in the tri-state region prays you are right. And if you are wrong, and nothing is done to prevent it now when there is time, and the hunting and non-consumptive wildlife-loving public demands an explanation, then we'll see what happens.

I salute you for responding and using your name. I hope you have a fine weekend in the outback.

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