[This is part 19 of a 20-part examination of wildlife disease management in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.]

In the next few months another 900 Yellowstone National Park bison will be targeted for slaughter in Montana. Meanwhile in Wyoming another season of artificially feeding tens of thousands of elk has also begun. After 18 columns I thought it was time to connect the dots by revisiting what I covered in the past.

• In column 1 I asked readers to ponder this number: Three-tenths of 1 percent. That statistic was presented in the first installment of a series examining wildlife diseases and controversial management in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It represents the likelihood that a migratory Yellowstone bison infected with the bovine disease brucellosis will pass it along to domestic cattle in Montana.

Ignoring this astronomically low probability and the fact that there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transmission between wild bison and cattle, the state of Montana and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service are pressuring Yellowstone to participate in the slaughter of another 900 of the animals under its care once they pass outside the invisible national park boundary.

The bison is the only wildlife species in the Greater Yellowstone, the West and possibly all of the U.S. not permitted to follow its biologically engrained instinct to migrate, despite the lack of compelling evidence by either the state of Montana or APHIS to justify a mounting death toll that exceeds 7,800 since the mid-1980s.

Elk the real culprit

Meanwhile, the same panel of experts that determined that bison pose a 0.03 percent risk of passing on brucellosis — a panel that included Montana State Livestock Veterinarian Dr. Martin Zaluski as part of a study funded by APHIS — estimated that migratory elk represent the highest probability of a wildlife species passing the disease to beef herds: between 99.7 and 100 percent. Yet Montana does nothing to keep suspected brucellosis-infected elk from moving outside the national park nor is it killing wapiti. Every case of brucellosis in cattle in the 28,000-square-mile Greater Yellowstone region, when it hasn’t been passed cattle-to-cattle, has been traced to elk.

• In column 2 I reported that citizen activist, hunter and wildlife conservationist Kathryn QannaYahu charged, without meeting any rebuttal, that APHIS, in pursuit of eradication of brucellosis from the ecosystem and with tacit approval from livestock officials in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, is trying to advance an agenda that uses the fear of trade sanctions on cattle producers.

Eradication would cost at least tens of millions of dollars and involve rounding up every wild bison, elk, deer, moose and dozens of other species, including birds, known to carry brucellosis, leading to either their destruction or inoculation with an effective vaccine that doesn’t exist. Experts say brucellosis eradication is impossible. Glenn Hockett, a hunter and conservationist with the Gallatin Wildlife Association, says more rational strategies to address a zoonotic disease focus on animals at risk, such as cattle, the same way we seek to human populations from polio, tetanus and influenza.

APHIS’s approach, Hockett said, is “akin to trying to vaccinate all mosquitoes in order to protect your horse from catching West Nile virus. It’s backward disease management.”

Feedgrounds breed disease

• Column 3 established that even though wildlife and livestock health experts knew that elk represent the greatest threat of passing brucellosis to cattle, the late Dr. Tom Thorne, a veterinarian in Wyoming, identified bison as the threat. Dr. David Hunter, a colleague of Thorne, said it was an attempt to divert attention from Wyoming’s 22 state-run elk feedgrounds and the National Elk Refuge, which Wyoming Gov. Stan Hathaway, when he was an attorney, called “a cesspool of disease.”

• Column 4 highlighted the well-established fact that the prime hot spots for brucellosis infection among wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone are the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming’s 22 feedgrounds, some of which occupy lands stewarded by the U.S. Forest Service, a sister agency of APHIS within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dr. Tom Roffe, a veterinarian who rose to the rank of national chief of wildlife health for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (which oversees the National Elk Refuge), says Fish and Wildlife and APHIS are violating their own tenets of disease prevention by supporting activities that lead to higher incidence of brucellosis in wildlife and elevate the potentially disastrous threat of chronic wasting disease. “We need to be honest with the public,” Roffe said, “and to date many of the government agencies involved with this issue haven’t been.”

• Column 5 noted that critics, including legal experts, believe the Bridger-Teton National Forest, by permitting the operation of elk feedgrounds, is knowingly violating its own Organic Act and the National Environmental Policy Act that mandates promotion of wildlife health. Lloyd Dorsey, hunter, conservationist and former staffer with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, pointed out how the Bridger-Teton’s own environmental review was “riddled with errors.” Shortly after the column appeared the environmental group Western Watersheds filed a lawsuit contending Forest Service permitting of five state-run elk feedgrounds was illegal.

• Column 6 illuminated a charge from a former tribal council of the Blackfeet Indian Nation that Native Americans enlisted to take part in the slaughter of Yellowstone bison were being used as tools to carry out an unethical culling of the animals by state and federal agencies.

• Column 7 called attention to the growing threat of the always-fatal chronic wasting disease, which is steadily advancing across Wyoming toward the feedgrounds. Wyoming’s former chief wildlife veterinarian, Terry Kreeger, claimed CWD does not pose a serious threat to elk, even though his opinion is contravened by a huge amount of scientific evidence.

• Column 8 showed how mounting public pressure prompted state and federal officials to call for a rewrite of the controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan. Rather than allow Yellowstone bison to roam outside the park, even in areas where no cattle are present, Montana livestock veterinarian Zaluski renewed his demand to have Yellowstone authorize the unprecedented action of allowing bison hunting inside America’s first national park.

• Column 9 pointed to reams of scientific evidence showing that predators such as wolves and cougars are actually natural allies in slowing the spread of wildlife diseases. In spite of this Wyoming, Montana and Idaho have adopted aggressive predator control.

• Column 10 revealed that as Montana was forced to admit that elk represent a statistically greater threat of brucellosis transmission, a number of public interest conservation groups, including the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, fought a push to start killing cow elk and fencing wapiti out of key habitat in the name of protecting livestock. The action prompted a lawsuit filed by sportsmen’s groups, challenging Montana’s lack of transparency in creating its policies.

Montana’s vendetta

• Column 11 exposed how Montana state livestock officials illegally trespassed on a private ranch to kill a bison bull that had been welcomed by the owner and that represented no threat of passing disease to cattle — a fact not even known by a senior advisor to Montana Gov. Steve Bullock. Once the incident was exposed Bullock issued an executive order prohibiting the Department of Livestock from trespassing on private land, an order it violated just a few weeks later. Montana’s hostility toward bison corroborates a 2008 investigation by the U.S. Government Accountability Office saying it lacked financial and scientific accountability.

• Column 12 pointed out how Montana ignored goodwill efforts of a citizens working group that met for years to find a way for Yellowstone bison to have room to roam in the state. Of 119,000 comments on management proposals for bison, at least 118,000 supported affording bison year-round habitat on Montana public land. That idea was rejected and again met with calls from the state livestock veterinarian to severely cut bison numbers by hunting inside Yellowstone.

“This is what you get,” said Glenn Hockett, of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, “when you have a legislature, beholden to livestock interests, that years ago stripped away authority for the state fish and wildlife department to manage bison as game animals and hand it over to the whims of livestock interests.”

State Sen. Mike Phillips, a wildlife biologist from Bozeman, called upon the Audit Committee in the Montana Legislature to review the state brucellosis management program. Legislators connected to ag interests declined to sanction the audit even as the department head confronted charges of fiscal mismanagement.

‘Uneasy truce’ in Wyoming

• Column 13 debunked the contention spread widely by livestock and wildlife officials in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho that brucellosis could devastate the livestock industry. Citing a cost-benefit analysis of expensive test-and-slaughter programs on Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds (a study livestock officials sought to suppress), the column showed that efforts to significantly reduce brucellosis are a waste of money. In terms of managing for disease and saving tax dollars, an expert said it would be more cost-effective to compensate ranchers when and if brucellosis reaches their herds.

• Column 14 highlighted how Montana’s hysteria over bison as an alleged disease threat, costly inflictors of private-property damage and serious threats to motorist safety is contradicted by Jackson Hole’s high level of tolerance for free-roaming bison that also carry brucellosis in areas where there are cattle.

“Bison are just not the issue in Jackson Hole that they seem to be in Montana,” said Jackie Skaggs, Grand Teton National Park spokeswoman. “Why is that? There is an uneasy truce here between local ranchers who vaccinate their cattle and wildlife migrating across park boundaries. And it seems to work.”

• Column 15 brought to light a research paper noting that if chronic wasting disease reaches the National Elk Refuge and Wyoming feedgrounds the consequences could be severe, not only for elk populations over several decades but also on hunting. Wildlife health officials warned that the feedgrounds are setting up elk herds for potential disaster.

• Column 16 demonstrated that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates the elk refuge and is supposed to be in the national vanguard to safeguarding wildlife, is guilty of inconsistent and contradictory management — critics argue hypocrisy — by feeding wildlife in ways it knows elevates disease risk and by concentrating artificially high elk numbers causing ecological damage.

• Column 17 showed how some ranchers have learned to live with brucellosis in elk, bison and predators such as wolves and have demonstrated how it can be done in ways that are healthy for the environment and economically profitable. One of them is former media mogul turned bison rancher Ted Turner. The knowledge he has gleaned provides a lesson not only about managing for brucellosis risk but shows that ranched bison hold competitive advantages over domestic cattle, and that wolves are not the threat to the bottom line as others claim.

• Column 18 showed how growing public pressure has had an effect on changing the behavior of some government bureaucracies. Hastened by a push from QannaYahu and conservation organizations, the National Park Service, APHIS and other agencies are having brucellosis and wildlife management protocols investigated by the National Academies of Science. The NAS findings, experts say, could be game-changing with regard to how bison and elk are managed more healthfully in the ecosystem, and they could save tens of millions of tax dollars.

“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 chief scientist, David Hallac, said. “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 with considering the health of wildlife at an ecosystem level — the region is doomed to repeat the same failed policies that harm not only wildlife but the public’s trust in government.

Addendum: Within the last few weeks two new cases of brucellosis infection in Montana cattle, in two far-apart Greater Yellowstone counties, have been identified. The source is still unknown, but neither can be blamed on Yellowstone bison.

Also telling is that neither case has devastated the ranchers whose herds have been exposed to the disease, nor have the cases resulted in sanctions on the beef industry or elicited hysteria from the state livestock veterinarian. To date, in response to repeated inquiries and points made in this series, the state of Montana has yet to provide any scientific evidence, based on alleged threat of brucellosis transmission, to justify lethal control of Yellowstone bison.

Todd Wilkinson’s column appears here every week. He is author of the critically acclaimed new book “Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet.”

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(7) comments

Marion Dickinson

The thing I find amazing is the elk numbers in the GYE, especially inside of the park have plunged, the number of bison has skyrocketed, and brucellosis is a bigger problem than ever. Even more amazing is that the few elk left are soley responsible for the continued spread of brucellosis.

Deidre Bainbridge

I live on ranch land in Teton County, WY and I watch the harassment of elk and bison by ranchers, illegal hazing and very un friendly fencing, Jackie Skaggs may believe from the confines of GTNP that ranchers are supportive of wildlife migrations, they may even espouse such to her office. Regardless it is a lie and the ranchers run Game And Fish as they run this state. The BEMP is violated by Game and Fish and the NER today. The plan calls for a sex ratio of 1 to 1 in order to provide for a genetically viable herd when reduced from 1,000 to 500. Right now the ratio is 2 cows to one bull. It is time to stop this culling of the Bison herd without following biological assessments and EIS.
Please in your next and final editorial enlighten us on all of the science you claim informs of CWD coming. I can't find it. Lloyd Dorsey, what are his credentials? has claimed such for 20 years. My research does not support this claim, and certainly not for animals that are well fed and properly; more from drought conditions, digging at denuded soil.

Also please enlighten us about the present state of the Elk Herds in Montana, region 3, I believe, Gardner -Lamar areas, is in dire shape, down from 20,000 elk to 4,000 and dropping. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks cannot stop the diminution. Ron Asheim admits is is not just from predation or climate. habitat factors but also from their sale of 1,000's of cow elk tags. It caught up with them. Do you espouse no elk at all?

What will the carnivores eat when there are no ungulates left in the forest? I suppose we should all just forget why we live here, for the honor and privilege to walk among abundant wildlife, including predators.

Todd Wilkinson

Deidre: Great points.
Lloyd Dorsey's concerns are informed by his discussions/poring over scientific studies with/from those working on chronic wasting disease in wildlife. That includes discussions with retired wildlife veterinarian Tom Roffe, who served as THE national chief for wildlife health with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tasked with reviewing management protocols to make sure they advanced ecological health of lands under FWS control. That is a big deal to rise to the rank of national chief. Dr. Roffe was, and is, deeply concerned about how artificial feeding in Wyoming has set up wildlife populations for serious disease outbreaks, and not just CWD. Moreover, former longtime NER field biologist Bruce Smith, as you are no doubt well aware, wrote a book titled "Where Elk Roam: Conservation and Biopolitics of Our National Elk Herd" and researchers in Colorado have studied CWD in elk and deer. No one has been able to refute the scientific conclusions espoused by Roffe or Smith. As for Lloyd Dorsey, an elk hunter and citizen wildlife advocate, wrote a very thorough list of concerns about the Forest Service's permitting of feedgrounds. He submitted them in conjunction with the Bridger-Teton National Forest's review of the Alkali Creek freedgrounds. Dorsey provides a long list of his references in the index. I suggest you get a copy from the Bridger-Teton National Forest. Even Brad Mead, brother of Wyoming governor Matt Mead and a respected long-time Jackson Hole rancher, said on-camera in the documentary Feeding the Problem about concerns over CWD reaching the NER, that it would be a game-changer and not for the betterment of elk]. As a side note, Montana citizens, with tacit support of wildlife experts, went to the polls and banned the practice of game farming elk due to grave fears of diseases becoming rooted in captive herds that might then escape and infect wild public herds based on a fear not only of CWD, but bovine TB.

Finally, the 19,000 figure you state for Yellowstone's Northern Elk Herd reached in the 1980s was an anomaly in history, unnaturally high and unsustainable (even attracting flack from livestock range cons at Montana State University, saying it needed to be dramatically reduced because of "overgrazing" of park grasses, aspen and willow). The outlook for elk in Yellowstone is not "dire". As you well know, predator and prey populations are dynamic, one following the other, up and down over time. In fact, Yellowstone's wolf population in recent years has been in decline.
On a personal level, I am not "anti-elk" at all. I love the animals. I am pro-healthy wild populations guided by the best possible science—science being a major pillar of the North American Model of Wildlife Management.

Wilson Kerr

This makes my blood BOIL. Been watching this issue play out for 15+ years and, as a hunter and outdoorsman, I am incensed by the stance of Montana and APHIS and their blatant disregard for sound science and common sense. Look even quickly at any single element of this matter (Why are the elk not targeted the same way? Wait, there's never been a single documented case of transmission to cattle in the wild by bison? Wait, the state artificially feeds wild elk, nose to nose, on feed grounds like cattle, while CWD knocks on our door? Wait, they shoot bison in areas where there are no cattle, in the winter, when they are not giving birth?) and you will conclude that fact and evidence and science are trumped by money and politics and an age-old "tame the Wild West" cattle-first mentality that defies all logic. Ranchers are a big part of why the west is wild and why there are open spaces and most I have met are hunters and stewards of the environment. This stance makes zero sense ecologically and divides people as it paints ranchers as the bad guys and Yellowstone National Parks as some enclave for the elite that can be treated as an isolated Federal game farm with animals that should be kept in, rather than a small piece of a giant, interconnected ecosystem that needs all it's parts to stay healthy - including those ancestral low-areas where the bison forage, across an invisible state line drawn on a map. The line the bison really cross is far more insidious, as it takes them into territory governed by man's tendency toward stubborn adherence to illogical, outdated, please-a-few policies that hurt and divide all-involved (who likely have far-more in common than APHIS or the State of MT would like us to discover).

Thank you Todd.

John Williams

Thank you for the hard work required to compile this report. I would love to hear a rebuttal from those advocating the bison slaughter.

Glenn Hockett

Todd's last sentence sums it up:

"To date, in response to repeated inquiries and points made in this series, the state of Montana has yet to provide any scientific evidence, based on alleged threat of brucellosis transmission, to justify lethal control of Yellowstone bison."

It is indeed time for the Governor of Montana to step up and respect and conserve bison as valued native wildlife in Montana.

Grant Spellerberg

Todd has done a stellar job in exposing the whole brucellosis scam that has been orchestrated by the livestock industry. It is time for the Gov. Of Montana to step up to the plate and put an end to the bison abuse. The science tells all.

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