(HELENA) For years the battle to keep Montana’s brucellosis-free status has centered on bison migrating in and out of Yellowstone National Park, but new science shows elk can also carry the disease, which has forced state wildlife managers to change their strategy.
Druska Kinkie runs a family ranch near Pray in the Central Paradise Valley where her family depends on the health of her cattle. For years she has closely followed the debate around bison migration and the potential spread of the livestock disease brucellosis.
“Bison has not been as much as a threat because of the spatial and temporal separation that has been occurring with bison,” said Kinkie.
Kinkie’s concerns were limited as hunts and hazing helped keep the bison away from her ranch, but now she is focused on the threat from Elk.
“Elk are a different matter. they’re hard to contain,” said Kinkie.
If livestock comes in contact with brucellosis, the tissue in the animal that is infected with the disease can cause that animal to lose its young.
Ranchers also face the loss of the animal itself or others that may become infected.
“So any loss of any animal in our cattle herd is a blow,” said Kinkie.
Herds also face rigorous testing and possible quarantine.
“It increases their stress level so that you can have injuries, abortions, so there are consequences to whole herd testing,” said Kinkie.
The potential for elk to transmit brucellosis has forced the state to reexamine how it manages elk in some regions of the state.
About four years ago, wildlife managers developed a brucellosis surveillance area across parts of southwest Montana.
It covers an area that stretches from I-15 at Dillon, east to Livingston. At its northernmost point, it reaches Three Forks, along with I- 90.
“Surely it is a disease of concern for livestock producers,” said Quentin Kujala, Fish, Wildlife & Park’s Wildlife Bureau Coordinator. He says brucellosis is a tough issue, and there aren’t a lot of clear answers.
“There is no clear path to that end. Other perspectives struggle to understand why Fish, Wildlife & Parks is involved. It’s not a disease that has been shown to impact elk populations significantly,” said Kujala.
He also says the concern for ranchers is elevated in the winter season when livestock and elk have to compete for the same resources.
“Elk is down, in the valley bottom with wintering cattle and those operations, and that makes the landscape small, the decision space small, values are large on all sides of the conversation, so all of that combines to make it a hard, difficult topic,” said Kujala.
Under the current working plan, approved in October, FWP does have some limited options for lethally removing elk with hunters or hazing elk back from the surveillance boundary.
It’s roughly the same plan that was in place last year, but livestock producers have few options for dealing with potentially infected elk.
“So without that work plan in place in the designated surveillance area, there will be no tools available to livestock producers to deal with infected wildlife. none,” said Kinkie.
The best they can do is try to keep the livestock and wildlife away from each other.
The changing face of brucellosis management has brought new stakeholders into the debate over how to manage the disease.
Tune in Thursday night when we hear from a hunting guide who urges caution, saying changes to elk management could impact his livelihood.
Reporter: Frances Lin