The Elk Vaccination Follies

By Beacon Staff

It has been depressing lately, don’t you think? At the ORG (Old Retired Guys) table at the coffee shop morning after morning, it has been nothing but despair – the war, the economy, the cost of gas, the steadily shrinking IRAs, the smoke, the aches and pains and health care crisis that makes them worse, and our political leaders unable to do anything about these and most other issues that really matter, at least to the ORGs. Nowadays, it’s so hard to lighten up and wear a smiley face.

But alas, thanks to the Montana Stockgrowers Association and Montana Farm Bureau I had a great laugh this week when I read about their proposal to capture, test, vaccinate and release all the elk coming out of Yellowstone National Park.

Are they really serious? Or just trying to brighten our day?

The livestock lobby has concluded that Montana lost its brucellosis-free status because elk transferred the disease to cattle. There is no proof of this, mind you, only rabid denial that it couldn’t be a cattle-to-cattle transfer and since bison were nowhere near the affected animals, by the process of elimination, it had to be elk. After all, they were seen in the same pasture, so they must be guilty, right?

To me, that’s hardly a smoking gun, but even if elk have transferred the disease, does it really matter?

The true cost of brucellosis is exaggerated, albeit still significant for a struggling industry like ranching. But imagine how much it might cost to develop a vaccine (millions of dollars and years into the future), and then attempt to live trap, hold while testing, inoculate and release all elk crossing the invisible boundary between the park and Montana. Rest assured that nobody has the slightest clue how expensive this might be or how, practically, it could even be done, if it is possible, which I doubt.

So, it must be a joke, right?

If not, shame on anybody – especially any politician – who supports the idea. Ironically, most western ranchers are among the most fiscally conservative people we know. Yet, they’re serious about wasting many millions on a plan that’s guaranteed to fail. And even if it worked for one year, those hard-to-train elk will keep coming out of the park, year after year, so we’ll have to be out there forever, guarding our borders from elk trying to slip into Montana in the dark of night.

And who pays for it? You don’t see the ranchers passing around the Stetson at the Stockman’s Bar. No, they’ll want hunters to pay for the fiscal folly through the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Park (FWP), just like Wyoming stockgrowers have politically forced the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to spend huge chunks of its budget, hunter’s license money, on operating elk feedgrounds, the root of the brucellosis problem for the entire Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA), not to mention compensating ranchers for “losses” suffered when public wildlife wanders onto private land and has a meal.

In announcing their “Hot Spot Brucellosis Management Plan,” the stockgrowers and farm bureau at least had the cajoles to say it out loud, that the costs should be borne by the federal government or “the appropriate wildlife agency.”

Craig Sharpe, executive director of the Montana Wildlife Federation, the state’s largest conservation group with 7,000 members, isn’t smiling. Nope, he thinks it’s serious and calls it “the most ludicrous, intrusive assault” on wildlife ever.

“It’s just unreasonable to try to vaccinate all the elk in the GYA,” agrees Glenn Hockett, president of the Gallatin Wildlife Association. “It boggles my mind how illogical this is. We don’t try to capture and vaccinate all the skunks for rabies; we vaccinate our pets.”

Sharpe and Hockett are worried, but I’m not. I’m amused. The thought that the livestock industry even thinks it’s physically and financially feasible to capture every wild elk coming out of the park is the real laugher. As a hunter – and not an especially good one, I admit – I can spend all season trying to get close enough to shoot one elk. Now, we’re going to capture, test, vaccinate and release thousands of elk and keep doing it all year long, every year, from now to eternity?

Instead, I suggest you turn your political guns on your brethren in Wyoming and convince them to close down the brucellosis concentrators otherwise known as elk feedgrounds. These elk feedlots, financed with hunter’s license dollars ($2 million annually), greatly increase the prevalence of brucellosis in wild elk throughout the GYA. Without the feedlots, perhaps the prevalence of brucellosis would plummet among elk, not just in Wyoming, but also in Idaho and Montana, and greatly reduce any chance of transfer to cattle.

This seems like a mighty inexpensive option compared to the vaccination follies.

Here is a case where the FWP needs to really stand up for hunters in Montana and against politicians who persist in thinking we could and should eradicate brucellosis. FWP shouldn’t waste one more penny of license money on the brucellosis scam and resist pressure to become a rancher-controlled, Wyoming-style agency.

Already, we see ominous signs of this happening. FWP has doubled the elk quota around Yellowstone with minimal public input and is now talking about capturing 350 elk in the Paradise Valley to test the prevalence of brucellosis, which is commonly believed to be very low. Forget this folly and focus on projects that benefit the people who pay FWP salaries. “Even if it’s 10 percent,” Hockett reminds us, “it just doesn’t matter.”

What does matter to me is that ranchers forget the brucellosis vaccination follies, and even if they won’t abandon this sure loser, FWP needs to stay clear of it and concentrate on real issues affecting wildlife management in Montana.