A management plan for areas where brucellosis is known to be present in elk was unanimously approved Thursday by the Fish and Wildlife Commission, despite concerns that no local working groups have been formed in the past nine months and that the plan doesn’t address the harboring of elk on private property.

The local working groups were one of the main recommendations from a 12-member committee that met for more than a year to look at ways to handle co-mingling of elk and livestock in the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) north of Yellowstone National Park. The smaller working groups were to be made up of locals in the surveillance area and tasked with outlining 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 in the spring, when cattle are grazing where elk afterbirth may have fallen and temporarily contaminated the ground. Domestic cattle brought the disease from Europe to the United States more than a century ago, and it’s now mainly eradicated from livestock but is present in both bison and elk. Last Friday, the second case of brucellosis in about a week turned up in a Madison Valley cattle herd, coinciding with new restrictions on animals exported to Texas because of worries that infections could spread beyond the region.

In January, the commission approved the 2013 work plan, which was meant to be a temporary fix while the local working groups got together and came up with the recommendations for 2014. Under the 2013 work plan, 13 elk were killed through “dispersal hunts” meant to move herds out of hayfields and calving areas.

Other options that were to have been 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.

The 2014 plan now focuses mainly on nonlethal actions to be tried first to keep elk and cattle separate when the risk of brucellosis transmission is highest — Jan. 15 to June 15 — by hazing and fencing. If that doesn’t work, multiple “hunts,” to be known as “lethal elk management removals” or EMRs because it’s not considered an actual hunt, could be used but that has to end by April 30. It also opens up the possibility of taking bull elk in areas where populations are below management objectives.

On Thursday, Mark Albrecht, one of the original Elk Brucellosis Working Group members, chastised FWP for the current plan and lack of local groups, saying he felt his time was “kind of wasted.”

“This plan is just all of the actions that Fish, Wildlife and Parks could take without our meetings,” Albrecht said. “We expected those working groups to be on the ground by now. FWP accepted responsibility to form those groups and make it happen, not to have somebody else do that job.”

He added that the current plan doesn’t discuss user group satisfaction or how to assess the cost and effectiveness of various alternatives of limiting transmission, including hazing during the early winter versus early spring, or taking lethal actions at different times to disperse herds.

JW Westman with the Laurel Rod and Gun Club called it a “Band-Aid” approach and asked the commission to postpone approval.

“I know a lot of hard work was done on this and I don’t mean to throw anybody under the bus. But we need to look at the larger picture, which is harboring of elk,” Westman said. “This is a large, large issue that could have broad implications for Montana. I think we have only one opportunity to start the process and get it right.”

Kathryn QannaYahu said it’s clear to her that additional environmental review is needed to move forward and that more transparency is required.

Former Commissioner Ron Moody was more specific. Protocols are non-existent when it comes to dealing with diseases and dispersed wildlife populations, which is something he had hoped would come out of this process, even if it is just at local levels.

He also gently chided the department and commission for not being more hands-on in developing the local working groups that would help develop those protocols.

“I was under the impression that the whole commission was going to keep a hands-on relationship with this endeavor,” Moody said. “The focus of the action is in Region 3, but what they will be inventing here is the methodology that will be applied wherever there is an outbreak in populations. It could even be applied to chronic wasting disease.”

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Quentin Kujala, the FWP Wildlife Management Section coordinator, said they tried to get existing groups in the DSA interested in discussion elk management in order to piggyback on their email and contact lists but had few if any takers.

However, FWP is working on putting a group together in the Paradise Valley before the end of the year, and he notes that a Madison Valley group has been working on hunting access issue for the past few years and can add elk management to its agenda. The Gallatin Wildlife Association also volunteered some of its members to be part of a local working group.

“I think these manifestations are well at hand,” Kujala said. “As local working groups put together plans, we’ll bring those to the commission. Those conversations may come forward and endorse this default work plan, or they might replace it with valleywide or watershed wide or other work plans. But we will be steering local conversations to local work plan development.

“… But I want to be clear. We want to reduce the risk of transmission while also maintaining elk presence on the land. This is not about removing elk from the land or a big reduction in their numbers.”

Commission chairman Dan Vermillion said that while this may not be everything everyone involved in the process anticipated, that it was a good process and forward progress is being made. He also encouraged members of the public, regardless of where they live, to get involved in the discussions about managing wildlife when disease is present on the landscape.

“I support this work plan; it isn’t perfect but it’s a good start,” Vermillion said. “… We’re not as far along as we hoped we would be, but it’s not prudent to stop the process because we didn’t make as much progress as we thought we would have made.”

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

Follow Eve on Twitter @IR_EveByron

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