Brucellosis, mad elk disease, wolves, and the fantasies of Northern Rockies wildlife politicians.

4-27-2002, links added 4-28 and 4-30

An Idaho cattle herd at Albertson's dairy (no relation to the grocery chain) near the Wyoming border has come down with a much feared disease -- brucellosis. For all the ink that has been spilled warning of this allegedly horrible disease, little ink is now being used to describe or analyze this development.

Some background.

Montana Department of Livestock has been telling us for years that the modest brucellosis infection rate in Yellowstone bison is a grave threat to the entire Montana livestock industry. Every winter Montana DOL kills from scores to over a thousand bison to protect Montana ranchers from the "total quarantine" that is said will befall any state that gets even one brucellosis-infected herd of cattle. Meanwhile Montana ignores the brucellosis in Yellowstone area elk which mingle on much more intimate terms than the bison.

Montana does not feed elk in the winter so the brucellosis rate is relatively low compared to areas to the south in Wyoming.

In Wyoming there is a much higher brucellosis infection rate in both bison and elk than in Montana, but in Wyoming they vaccinate cattle against brucellosis and say "all is well." Moreover, the state feeds elk in the winter on over a score of feed grounds which concentrate the elk and facilitate the spread of brucellosis (or any disease) as the elk munch hay spread by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department amidst the aborted calves of the winter (a hallmark of brucellosis). Those who argue these feed grounds are a disease tragedy waiting to happen are disparaged by Wyoming Game and Fish and a new group called "Elk for Tomorrow" makes weekly personal attacks on feed ground critics and supporters of wolves in full page paid ads in Jackson Hole newspapers.

As with Montana, no cattle have contracted brucellosis from the elk or bison.

In Idaho, wintering elk and deer are generally not fed, but informal private and public feed grounds are cropping up. Some of Idaho's Fish and Game Commissioners would like to begin large scale feeding programs like Wyoming. The idea is to build up Idaho elk herds so they will be like Wyoming's. However, the position of Idaho's state veterinarian has been there will be no tolerance of bison (like Montana) because they are a danger for brucellosis. However, elk herds with brucellosis have begun to show up in Idaho near the Wyoming border.

Remember too, that the Idaho Cattle Association has become a great friend of the Fish and Game Commission.

Amazingly brucellosis in cattle shows up in Idaho-

The fact that the first brucellosis livestock infection showed up in Idaho scrambles the deeply held, but somewhat contradictory beliefs of wildlife and livestock politicians in the three states.

Idaho's state vet, Dr. Bob Hillman, told the media that the infected cattle are on a farm near Tetonia, Idaho where wild elk have been fed by a farmer amidst cattle, despite repeated warnings. Hillman told the Jackson Hole News that the cattle were vaccinated but got the disease anyway because the vaccine is not totally effective.

Vaccinating elk-

The state of Wyoming says it is reducing the incidence of brucellosis in feed ground elk by vaccinating them at the feed grounds. However, in the last year the brucellosis positive test rate has soared to as high at 50% (on the Grays River feed ground near Alpine, WY). The National Elk Refuge (NER) refuses to let the state vaccinate the elk on federal ground. They say the vaccine is not effective. NER instead tries to reduce the infection rate by not feeding hay. Instead they disperse alfalfa pellets over a much wider area, reducing the concentration of the fed elk. The brucellosis positive rate was only 18% this winter on the NER.

Why these contradictory policies?

To winter feed or not, to vaccinate or not, to kill bison or not? These are the options the states consider. There is one big vacancy in their list of options -- the elk.

The three states refuse to deal with the elk, for one reason -- the abundant elk are hunted and this generates income for rural areas.

That's why Montana kills bison, but not elk. That's why Wyoming feeds elk, maintaining populations at high levels and complains about the slightest wolf predation on the feed grounds. That's why Idaho's Fish and Game commissioners hate predators and Wyoming wants federal compensation for the elk that wolves have eaten in Wyoming.

And that's why not much is being said about the Idaho brucellosis cattle nor the threat of chronic wasting disease (a.k.a. "mad elk" and "mad deer").

What about mad elk disease?

After years of apparent containment in north central Colorado and SE Wyoming chronic wasting disease has exploded into Nebraska, Wisconsin, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and has crossed to the west slope of the Colorado Rockies. Much of the spread of the disease appears to be associated with game farms which of necessity concentrate the domesticated wildlife. The Wyoming feed grounds are very much like game farms in the concentration of elk, and the new CWD location in Colorado is just south of the Western Wyoming border.

No one knows exactly how CWD, the brain-destroying prionic disease spreads, but the prions (malfolded proteins) seem to be very resistant to disinfection. Safe destruction of the prion infected animal uses sodium and potassium hydroxide (lye), coupled with heat and pressure to dissolve the animals.

So is Wyoming Game and Fish concerned? On April 24, the Jackson Hole Guide reported that Wyoming Game and Fish vet Terry Kreeger said the "disease spreads extremely slowly in the wild." [emphasis mine]. He then said "It sounds like Colorado has stopped it in its tracks." However, the news from Colorado is so sanguine, and the disease is spreading rapidly, not slowly.

Read this article from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is very alarmed. Updated 4-28. "Deer strategy a guessing game. As anxiety grows, Wisconsin DNR gropes to find ways to eradicate little-understood disease."
By Bob Riepenhoff and Lee Bergquist of the Journal Sentinel staff

What now?

What should happen is this.

1. Wyoming should shut its elk feed grounds
2. Idaho should not get into this business.
3. Testing for CWD should be done extensively in the three states
4. Game farms should be closed. This is happening in Colorado. See Denver Post 4-30.
5. Montana should stop its inflammatory killing of bison because these bison are the least infective component in brucellosis.
6. Idaho Fish and Game commissioners who advocate turning Idaho into elk, feed lot paradise should be fired.

But what has happened is this.

1. Montana Governor Judy Martz said we should step up efforts to eradicate brucellosis in the wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Area. Is she proposing vaccination, killing more bison, killing elk?
2. Idaho state vet Hillman said the elk were Yellowstone National Park elk as though the Park was the seat of infection rather than the Wyoming state feed grounds.
3. Wyoming Game and Fish vet Kreeger said "he expects little effect the [brucellosis] outbreak will have little effect on brucellosis policy in Wyoming" because the state vaccinates elk (although apparently ineffectively).
4. Montana is suddenly killing more bison, but now says the reason is not brucellosis, but that Yellowstone Park is overpopulated with bison.
5. No publicity, but rumor they are shooting Idaho elk.

And what about the claim that any brucellosis in Idaho, Montana, or Wyoming will cause all the state's cattle to be quarantined because the state will lose its official "brucellosis free status?" Does anyone think this will happen?

Kreeger told the Jackson Hole Guide "The most important interpretation of this is that brucellosis is still a contagious disease and it can be spread to other animals." Well, talk about stating the obvious!

And, of course, Wyoming state politicians will somehow blame the wolves.

Added 4-28-2002. Editorial opinion of the Missoulian. "Wildlife diseases have a human factor."
Added 4-30-2002. Are Wyoming's feedgrounds a hotbed of disease? by Karen Mockler. High Country News.


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