By MATTHEW BROWN
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- New federal rules ease sanctions against states bordering Yellowstone National Park when livestock get infected with the disease brucellosis -- but leave unresolved the more nettlesome problem of infected wildlife.
Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture rules, ranchers with a handful of cattle infected with the reproductive disease no longer risk losing their entire herds to slaughter. Nor do states automatically lose their coveted "disease-free" status -- a past practice that cost the industry tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and expenses.
The most significant change for wildlife is increased disease monitoring for species like bison and elk that carry brucellosis. So far, though, the rules have yielded no change to a government-sponsored capture program for bison, under which more than 500 of the animals are awaiting possible slaughter.
Brucellosis causes pregnant cattle, bison, elk and other animals to miscarry. It has been largely eradicated outside the Yellowstone region of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, where it lingers in wildlife.
Lyndsay Cole with the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the agency's new rules give states more control over managing brucellosis within their borders. They also recognize that periodic transmissions from wildlife-to-cattle should be treated differently from cattle-to-cattle transmissions.
"In these cases that are popping up, we recognize that the chance of (an infected) cattle herd spreading it to other herds is slim to none as long as they are quarantined and the infected animals removed," she said.
Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski called the shift in federal policy a game-changer for brucellosis management in livestock.
Instead of the heavy hand of the Department of Agriculture coming down on states with infections, Zaluski said agriculture officials are finally acknowledging the Yellowstone region is unique.
The states must agree to essentially draw a line around a disease hot zone near the park. The most stringent brucellosis restrictions -- vaccination requirements and blood tests for animals being shipped out of state -- are reserved for livestock producers inside the zone, known as the designated surveillance area.
But ranchers inside the area complain of being stigmatized.
At a hearing before the Montana Legislature last week, cattle producers living near Yellowstone National Park urged adoption of a bill from a Republican lawmaker from Wilsall that includes a sunset clause for the state's new surveillance area.
Park County livestock producer Druska Kinkie said during a Thursday hearing on the measure that cattle buyers have been more reluctant to buy when they learn an animal comes from the designated brucellosis area.
"There's no reason why a designated surveillance area should be in place in perpetuity," she said.
Zaluski warned the bill from state Sen. Ron Arthun could undermine the state's effort to comply with the new federal rules -- and potentially lead to a loss of Montana's brucellosis-free status. The measure has not yet come to a vote.
Conservationists generally support the federal rules, characterizing them as a major step toward relieving livestock industry concerns over Yellowstone's wildlife.
Although the rules have been in place only temporarily since Dec. 27 and remain open to public comment, backers hope they will lead officials to re-think the need to capture and slaughter bison that migrate outside the park to find food in Montana.
"The brucellosis concerns from a regulatory and economic perspective have largely evaporated," said Mark Pearson with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Wildlife officials say about half of the park's bison test positive for exposure to brucellosis. The prevalence rate among elk has been on the rise. Within one elk herd at the northern end of Yellowstone, the rate has gone from about 1 percent of animals in the early 1990s to more than 15 percent in some areas in recent years.
At least eight cattle infections have been found over the last decade, with elk believed to be the main source of those transmissions. Yet because elk roam freely and often in small numbers, there have been few efforts to control their movements.
That leaves bison -- which generally move in large groups -- as the animals most restricted by brucellosis containment efforts. Zaluski said that is not likely to change in the short term.
Even if new habitat were opened to the animals, he said that would merely change where the line has to be drawn to protect cattle. Once that additional habitat filled up and bison started to migrate beyond it, the problem of what to do with the animals would return, he said.
"I have some reluctance to speak about additional habitat without a greater conversation about population management," he said. "It's like buying another pair of pants because you keep getting fatter. At some point you'll grow out of those pants too."
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.