[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.
• 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.