BILLINGS, Montana – Federal officials are considering a tentative proposal that calls for capturing or killing infected elk in Yellowstone National Park to eliminate a serious livestock disease carried by animals in the area.
Government agencies have killed more than 6,000 wild bison leaving Yellowstone over the last two decades in an attempt to contain brucellosis, which causes pregnant cattle to abort their young.
Cattle in parts of Wyoming and Montana where bison haven't roamed for decades are being infected, and livestock officials in both states are now targeting elk as the cause.
"We've got way too many elk," said John Scully, a rancher living in Montana's Madison Valley. "Clearly with so many elk, the risk rises. We need to reduce their numbers."
A tentative proposal, drafted by federal officials, sets a goal of eliminating the disease — not just controlling it in bison and in elk.
Livestock officials say infected elk herds around Yellowstone must be culled — an explosive proposition for a prized big game species that has thrived under the protection of a dedicated constituency of hunting groups. Nevertheless, pressure is mounting to kill or capture more of the animals.
Outfitters and hunters are digging in against the prospect of killing elk, concerned that too much culling could shrink herds. They contend wildlife managers should focus on vaccinating cattle or eradicating the disease in bison.
"I will fight that tooth and nail. As a sportsman, those wildlife are a public resource," said Bill O'Connell of the Gallatin Wildlife Association.
An estimated 95,000 elk populate the greater Yellowstone area in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Experts estimate only a small percentage carry brucellosis.
There is no effective brucellosis vaccine for wildlife, and cattle vaccines are only 60 to 70 percent effective. Humans are susceptible to the disease, but cases are rare and usually limited to those who work with infected cattle.
Eradicated everywhere else in the nation, brucellosis surfaced seven times in the Yellowstone area this decade, including twice since mid-June. With the recent cases, Montana ranchers near Yellowstone face severe restrictions on out-of-state cattle sales, and Wyoming ranchers could face a similar fate if another cow in the state tests positive for brucellosis in the next two years.
For bison, the strategy to prevent transmissions has been brutally straightforward. When deep snows prompt large numbers of the animals to migrate outside Yellowstone, they are rounded up and sent to slaughter or herded back into the park.
An estimated $19 million has been spent on those efforts since 2002. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said the recent brucellosis infections exposed the program as a failure.
"Managing a disease means more than chasing buffalo back into the park," Schweitzer said.
In terms of sheer numbers, the Yellowstone region's 25 elk herds dwarf the three herds of bison. And unlike bison, which move in groups, elk move freely over the region's numerous mountain ranges, often alone or in small numbers.
Since late 2006, federal officials and the governors of Idaho, Wyoming and Montana have been trying to negotiate a regional brucellosis plan that would deal with different species. But prospects for an agreement remain uncertain given the states' divergent approaches to wildlife.
Wyoming's use of artificial feedgrounds, for example, remains a sticking point among the states. Researchers say the feedgrounds concentrate elk herds and foster the spread of disease.
But Wyoming officials say the elimination of the feedgrounds could make the brucellosis problem worse, if hungry elk scattered into areas where cattle range. Near Pinedale, Wyoming, the state has begun capturing elk and slaughtering any that show signs of the disease.
In Montana, state officials hope to increase elk hunting near Yellowstone and expand a testing program to gauge which herds are badly infected.