How to deal with brucellosis in elk is expected to be the main topic of discussion for Thursday’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission meeting in Helena.
More than 100 people from throughout Montana and the nation have commented on the commission’s initial plan to reduce the risk of transmitting the contagious bacterial disease between elk and livestock near Yellowstone National Park — and the vast majority are in opposition to it.
Many of the comments reflect the feeling that brucellosis is a problem for domestic cattle, not wild elk, and that minimization of disease transmission is best accomplished by managing cattle.
“I strongly urge you to reject another costly, wasteful taxpayer funded welfare program for cattle ranchers,” wrote Cheryl Lechtanski of Middletown, New Jersey. “Do not permit management of our wildlife heritage to be taken over by livestock interests.”
The Montana Wildlife Federation was more specific. In a five-page letter, the conservation organization first commended FWP for putting together a diverse group that put in hundreds of hours to come up with some possible approaches to managing the disease, which can result in miscarriages in some pregnant animals, including bison, elk and domestic cattle.
However, MWF also had concerns about how guidelines and objectives are defined, and they questioned why the proposal deals only with managing elk. The group also said the proposals appear to give priority to livestock and landowner interests over the interests of wildlife, wildlife enthusiasts and sportsmen and women, and added that the guidelines, as written, are unacceptable.
“To really make progress on reducing the probability of transmission of brucellosis from elk to livestock, there needs to be something stated about how cattle and the livestock producers are involved,” wrote Skip Kowalski, the MWF vice president for issues. “Managing elk cannot be done in a vacuum with the expectation that everything will be fine as a result. There must be something discussed about how ranchers are involved, what their responsibilities are and how success will be measured.”
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation also weighed in, saying that they also believe the recommendations “seem to suggest that livestock are of first and foremost importance” on the landscape. In addition, the group urged FWP to work with Idaho and Wyoming to discuss potential actions and coordination related to brucellosis.
FWP staff noted that the livestock industry already is working on additional management efforts to minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission, including additional testing and vaccination of cattle.
“Most if not all large-scale public grazing allotments already have pasture entry dates that are after the primary brucellosis transmission risk period,” staff noted in a memo to the commission. “And many of the potential management actions identified here seek more use by wildlife of public habitats while not dismissing the reality that many winter ranges do and will continue to overlap private lands. In this regard, many of the same potential management actions represent value for elk management even in the absence of brucellosis.”
When the commission members gave initial approval in November to the recommendations from the 12-member Elk-Brucellosis Working Group, they were pleased with the list of “action alternatives” that could be used as part of the effort to keep infected elk from spreading brucellosis to cattle. They noted that what they passed was just a broad framework of ideas for small, localized groups to consider, then bring to the commission for possible actions specific to a watershed or hunting district.
The framework involves four alternatives, with a range of actions among those alternatives. Most of the alternatives speak toward adjusting elk distribution, since brucellosis transmission and occurrence is higher in areas where they congregate closely, like at the winter feeding grounds in Wyoming.
Under the hunting heading, FWP could develop late-season hunts beyond Feb. 15; use hunt coordinators for management hunts; use the season structure to address harboring of elk by private landowners; develop adaptive hunting regulations; and/or reduce the winter herd sizes.
With the habitat alternative, the state could consider ways to promote spatial separation of elk and livestock during critical brucellosis risk periods, which typically is during elk calving season in the spring up through the period ranchers send livestock into the summer grazing areas.
Containment is another alternative on the table, which could include reducing wolf numbers in elk winter range; more intensive hazing of elk in high risk areas; public funding for fencing cattle feeding areas; allowing less elk harboring on private land; elk-proof fencing for high-risk areas; creating more Wildlife Management Areas for spatial separation; or creating incentives for landowners who harbor elk to allow public access.
The final action alternative involves research and education. That could include increased monitoring of elk that test positive to brucellosis exposure; expand research in the DSA and contiguous areas; make it easier to research brucellosis vaccines; and educate landowners who harbor elk.
Also on the agenda is a permit to remove, for commercial reasons, carp from Canyon Ferry Reservoir using a seining net. The public will have time to comment on the proposed regulations at the meeting, and written comments will be accepted until shortly before the commission’s March 14 meeting.
An “information-only” brief overview also will be made on the proposed reserved water rights compact between the State of Montana and Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
The commission meeting is set to begin at 8:30 a.m. at FWP’s Helena headquarters at 1420 East Sixth Ave.
Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or email@example.com
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