By JOHN O'CONNELL
Some members of the Idaho cattle industry argue inadequate Yellowstone National Park management practices have stymied efforts to stop the spread of brucellosis.
The Idaho State Department of Agriculture announced Nov. 7 that the state's Designated Surveillance Area for brucellosis has been expanded to include all of Fremont County. Producers within the county will now have to draft management plans to limit contact between livestock and wildlife, especially wild elk, and consent to special management practices and federally funded testing. Brucellosis causes abortions in cattle and can be spread by afterbirth of wildlife.
Idaho Cattle Association Executive Vice President Wyatt Prescott said his organization is working closely with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game to bolster its program to test elk and remove infected animals. Prescott would also like to see more done in Yellowstone, where officials say elk aren't tested, aside from data gathering for occasional research projects.
"Our problem is coming from the mismanagement or lack of management of those wildlife in Yellowstone," Prescott said.
Prescott acknowledged testing is expensive and labor intensive, but added, "There's still efforts that could be done."
Though pleased with the efforts of ISDA and USDA, ICA President Richard Savage believes the park has neglected a responsibility to protect the well-being of its neighbors.
"You look at a 100-mile radius around Yellowstone National Park and you'll find some of the best genetics in the world running in that area. Those herds have to be protected," Savage said.
Rick Wallen, a Yellowstone wildlife biologist, said the park's strategy is to advance science on how and when the disease is spread. Research shows young infected animals can be vectors, while older animals tend to overcome brucellosis and develop antibodies that trigger false positive tests. The park avoids rounding up animals and testing them within its borders.
"Then you're managing a ranch instead of a wildlife preserve or a wild population," Wallen said.
Wallen said nearly half of Yellowstone's 3-year-old bison are infected. As part of a legal settlement with the State of Montana, the park captures bison when high numbers of them cross the border into Montana's Gardiner Basin. In the future, the park will destroy young infected bison, vaccinate young clean animals and allow older animals, determined to pose little risk, to roam free.
Wallen said the park hazes bison to keep them away from bordering cattle herds. He said there are no documented cases of bison spreading the disease to cattle.
"When I hear people argue we should do more, the only thing we could do more of is eliminate the wildlife here," Wallen said.
IDFG is sending out more test kits to elk hunters, broadening its testing pool from controlled hunt participants to also include some in the general hunt, said Brad Compton, the state's big game manager.
"Until the source of the disease can be addressed, our best bet is to maintain separation between elk and cattle, especially during the high-risk (elk calving) period of January to June," Compton said.