Outbreak Renews Brucellosis Debate

By Beacon Staff

LANDER, Wyo. – Wyoming’s chief wildlife manager said he believes it’s currently impossible to purge brucellosis from bison and elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem.

Brucellosis is endemic to the elk and bison populations in the Yellowstone region, said Terry Cleveland, director of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, and the tools don’t yet exist to eliminate the disease from wildlife.

“It’s my personal belief that the ultimate solution for the livestock industry would be researching and developing a vaccine that’s 100 percent effective in cattle,” Cleveland said.

That, coupled with a continuing effort to reduce opportunities for contact between elk and livestock during the four months when the disease is transmitted, seems the most reasonable strategy now, he said.

Brucellosis has once again been found in a Wyoming cattle herd, threatening the state’s “brucellosis-free” market status for the second time this decade. Efforts to eradicate the disease include vaccinating wildlife in the Yellowstone area. But current vaccines aren’t always effective.

Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said he agrees with Cleveland that it’s currently not possible to eradicate the disease from elk and bison in the Yellowstone region, but he believes it’s also an important goal to come up with the tools to make that eradication a reality through “extensive, significant research.”

It would be a mistake, Magagna said, to allow the disease to go unchecked in wildlife because any vaccine for brucellosis, no matter how effective, could be overwhelmed by high enough concentrations of the brucellosis bacteria.

Louise Lasley, public lands director for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, said she fears the U.S. Department of Agriculture will call for more vaccination, coupled with reductions of elk and bison numbers, following the latest brucellosis outbreaks in Montana and Wyoming cattle.

The number of cattle directly affected by the disease is significantly lower than that of bison and elk, so it seems a bit absurd to try to control the disease in the larger, wild population, rather than focusing on the domesticated animals, she said.

“If you look at the sheer numbers, the approach is irresponsible,” Lasley said. “We’re basically trying to domesticate wildlife herds for the purposes of somehow being able to inoculate them. It’s disturbing from a wildlife perspective because we’re losing the wildness of the herds.”

Brucellosis can raise the cost of doing business for some stockgrowers, but it poses no real threat to wildlife in the Yellowstone region, said Brandon Scurlock, a brucellosis expert with the Game and Fish Department.

The bacterial infection has been known to cause an elk cow, for example, to abort her first pregnancy after she’s contracted the disease, but she’ll generally be able to reproduce normally thereafter, he said.

It is not dangerous to eat the meat of animals infected with brucellosis, as long as it is cooked.

Brucellosis has been all but eliminated from America’s livestock, but transmission from wildlife to cattle still occurs.

In Sublette County, 29 head of cattle from the same rancher are now confirmed to have been infected.

Authorities have yet to determine whether the Daniel-are herd contracted the disease from elk, or from another cattle herd.

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