By MATTHEW BROWN

Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) -- Montana officials are turning new attention to elk as the source of the disease brucellosis following a string of infections in livestock, with plans to alter management of the popular big game species in parts of the state around Yellowstone National Park.

Bison in the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming were long the main focus of efforts to stop the disease, which can cause pregnant animals to miscarry their young. Thousands of bison migrating from Yellowstone National Park have been captured and slaughtered over the past decade to prevent transmissions to cattle.

But amid new efforts to expand where bison can roam, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are setting up an advisory panel to craft ways to reduce risks from the other main carrier of the disease -- elk.

Five livestock herds in Montana and at least 10 more region-wide have suffered brucellosis infections in the last decade. Livestock officials said in most cases that infected elk were the cause.

Although some ranchers have called to remove diseased elk through a testing and slaughter program, Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokesman Ron Aasheim said the department opposes such proposals and has no plans to do so.

Instead, the agency is seeking ways to reduce risk of transmissions through non-lethal means. That could include closely managing where livestock graze, adjusting elk seasons and using herders or other means to keep wildlife and livestock apart during seasons when brucellosis transmission risks are highest.

The Yellowstone region's estimated 95,000 elk roam freely -- unlike bison, which group together and are sometimes driven like cattle to keep them away from livestock.

The 12-member advisory panel -- envisioned as a mix of ranchers, hunters and wildlife advocates -- will seek consensus on what steps should be taken. It will meet through June and then deliver recommendations to Fish, Wildlife and Parks Director Joe Maurier.

"The ultimate goal is if you could have elk brucellosis-free. Knowing that's not going to happen here in the near future, we're looking at the best way to manage the risk to particular livestock interests," Aashem said.

Brucellosis, once a major problem for livestock across much of the nation, has been eradicated in the U.S. except in Yellowstone-area wildlife. It was introduced to the region through infected livestock brought by European settlers.

Debby Barrett, a Republican state senator from Dillon who has been critical of elk management by Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said the agency should aggressively seek to decrease the number of infected elk.

That includes killing those testing positive for disease exposure and giving the meat to food banks.

"We know it's in elk. I think any elk they find it in right now they should lethally remove," she said. "Otherwise all they're going to do is spread the disease farther and farther."

A member of a hunting and conservation group said trying to eliminate the disease in wildlife was all but impossible given how far it has spread. But Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, added that the economic risks of brucellosis have decreased considerably since the federal government recently eased livestock trade sanctions that used to be impose on states with infections.

Blood tests on elk over the last few years revealed brucellosis in areas of Montana around the park where it was previously unknown, with approximately 13 percent of animals testing positive for exposure to the disease.

To gauge the geographic extent of infections, another 100 elk are to be captured for testing this winter in Madison and Beaverhead counties south of Dillon, and up to 30 more in the Pioneer Mountains, north of Dillon. Animals that test positive in the field will be radio-collared for recapture in future years.

"Hopefully this will give us information on where the risk is, not only for elk to cattle transmissions but also potentially elk to elk transmission," said Neil Anderson, a supervisor at the Fish, Wildlife and Parks wildlife laboratory in Bozeman. "We're trying to do this on the edge of where we know brucellosis exists."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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