The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioners agreed that they’re “plowing new ground” when it comes to handling brucellosis in elk and while they’re not sure how that will look in actual management activities, they want to maintain a hands-on presence at least for the next few years.
“Typically the commission sets the policy framework and when it hits the fan out there nobody is standing in front of the people other than the regional supervisor and one commissioner,” Commissioner Ron Moody said. “Maybe this commission needs to be standing there too.”
After a lengthy comment period from the public and the commission, the five commissioners unanimously passed a motion adopting the fundamental guidelines put together during the past year by a volunteer 12-member Elk Brucellosis Working Group. But they also agreed that FWP staff will need to report to the commission by August, as well as upon request in the next few years, on outcomes and issues related to brucellosis in elk.
In Region 2, however, where concerns on brucellosis are focused, Commissioner Dan Vermillion and the regional supervisor will still be allowed to make decisions on a limited scope of activities for this spring without bringing it before the entire commission.
More than 100 people sent written comments during the past two months after the commission’s initial approval last year of the guidelines, which became controversial for their focus on managing elk to reduce the possibility of their transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle. The disease can cause bison, elk and domestic cattle to abort their fetuses.
Many people feared that the list of options — including limited late-winter and spring hunts or hazing to disperse elk grazing in hayfields — appeared to give priority to livestock and landowner interests over those of wildlife and wildlife enthusiasts.
Commissioners sought to calm those concerns, saying that livestock producers in the brucellosis “designated surveillance area,” generally located north of Yellowstone National Park, already had taken numerous steps to prevent transmission. They’re doing additional testing; the Department of Livestock has staff positions dedicated solely to the brucellosis program; they’ve proactively adjusted the boundaries of the designated surveillance area; and DOL is funding some wildlife surveillance activities, including a multi-year elk capture-and-test project.
With Thursday’s adoption of the fundamental guidelines, commissioners hope that smaller working groups made up of locals in the surveillance area will come up with some options tailored to specific landscapes to help avoid having elk and domestic cattle cross paths during the spring while both are calving. If brucellosis were to be transmitted it would be at that time, when cattle are grazing where elk afterbirth may have fallen and temporarily contaminated the ground.
Imported cattle more than a century ago initially introduced brucellosis to wild animals. It’s largely been eradicated in livestock, but ranchers feared that infected bison would transmit it to their herds. It’s been only after recent wildlife/cattle transmissions that officials realized that perhaps the disease was coming from elk, not bison.
The commission also is hoping to keep elk from unnaturally clustering in certain areas, noting that it’s a prime way for disease — not just brucellosis but also sicknesses like chronic wasting disease — to quickly spread. Elk feeding grounds in Wyoming, where large numbers are gathered in a small area, are thought to be an ongoing source for brucellosis.
“We are breaking new ground completely,” said Commissioner Bob Ream.
Blake Henning with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation said the final document is much clearer than the initial one, and that it addressed several of his organization’s concerns.
But he wanted clarification of what would constitute a “late-season” hunt, noting that cow elk shouldn’t be shot as their fetuses are close to the end of their gestation period.
“We are concerned but if it’s done on a small scale strategically and tactfully, those could work to a degree,” Henning said.
Still some members of the public have questioned whether this is an answer searching for a problem.
Glenn Monahan, of Bozeman, urged the commission not to take any action at this point. He said that a recent study of 229 elk captured in the surveillance area showed 17 were “seropositive” for brucellosis, which means they were exposed but not necessarily carriers of the disease. Of those, 11 received vaginal implants to record what happened when they gave birth. Of those, only two were shedding the bacteria.
“That’s less than 1 percent,” Monahan said. “That’s not a number that requires immediate action.”
Shelby DeMars with United Property Owners of Montana also questioned the commission’s motives, noting that they believe this is just a way to force landowners to allow elk hunters onto private property.
DeMars added that the commission shouldn’t rule out the “test and slaughter” option for any elk testing positive to exposure to brucellosis.
“By releasing the elk FWP knows are infected with brucellosis, they’re threatening all the rights of all Montanans to a clean and healthful environment, which is guaranteed under MEPA (the Montana Environmental Policy Act),” DeMars said. “Releasing elk puts people and livestock at risk of contracting the disease.”
Bill Orsello, with the Montana Wildlife Federation, countered that the elk with positive test results are only showing that they’ve been exposed to brucellosis — disease carriers can’t be confirmed unless an autopsy is completed on a dead animal. He said the test and slaughter was a grave concern for MWF members.
“Some elk are just seroprevalent and not contagious,” Orsello said.
Joe Cohenour, of East Helena, who was a member of the Elk/Brucellosis Working Group, added that a capture, test and slaughter program in Wyoming in the 1990s cost $13,000 per elk.
“Physically it’s not a good thing to do and socially it isn’t either,” Cohenour said.
Other options that could be considered by the small, localized working groups include using hunt coordinators for management hunts; adjusting the season structure to address harboring of elk by private landowners; developing adaptive hunting regulations; and/or reducing winter elk herd sizes.
They also could recommend reducing wolf numbers in elk winter range; public funding for fencing off cattle feeding areas; creating more Wildlife Management Areas for spatial separation; or creating incentives for landowners who harbor elk to allow public access.
Commissioners also were urged to continue to press for easier ways to research brucellosis vaccines for cattle.
“I hope the people in southwest Montana will be engaged in these working groups,” Vermillion said. “There are some difficult decisions ahead and I think there will be frustrating times. But I also think this is a great way to move forward and minimize the risk of transmission.”