[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.