BILLINGS – Federal officials and livestock agencies in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana have reached a broad agreement to fundamentally alter the government’s approach to brucellosis, a costly animal disease that causes pregnant cattle and other animals to miscarry.
The Yellowstone region is the last domestic reservoir of the disease, which persists in wild bison and elk.
The disease once infected an estimated 127,000 farms nationwide. But after a costly eradication program lasting decades, some federal and state officials say it’s now time to shift efforts to control the disease from a nationwide program to one concentrated around Yellowstone.
Following meetings with representatives of the three Yellowstone states last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a tentative proposal Wednesday to scrap its existing brucellosis rules.
They would be replaced with rules that are less stringent for most of the country but more strict in parts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
The proposal must overcome skepticism from Yellowstone-area ranchers and opposition from veterinarians in other parts of the country worried over any possible weakening of the current rules.
A USDA spokeswoman cautioned that the proposal was not final and could change following public input.
“It’s a general framework, not a plan moving forward,” said Lyndsay Cole with the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
Under the tentative plan released Wednesday, ranchers in the Yellowstone area would face disease testing on their livestock indefinitely and be subject to strict quarantine if infections were to occur.
But infections would not lead to statewide penalties, as is currently the case.
While that’s roughly in line with a previous USDA plan that came under harsh criticism earlier this year, the latest proposal puts states in charge of setting the boundaries for testing.
Also gone is language referring to the testing area as a special “zone” — a word that for many ranchers and state officials came to symbolize the stigma that could attach to Yellowstone-area cattle. The new plan breaks the federal zone into “designated surveillance areas” within each of the three states.
Tom McDonnell, vice president of the Idaho Cattleman’s Association, said those seemingly small changes amount to a big difference for cattle producers.
“It allows us the flexibility to only designate those areas where state veterinarians think it’s absolutely necessary,” he said. “Those areas probably won’t be probably near the size that would have been required” under the USDA’s prior proposal.
Further details are expected to be released in late July. The proposal will be presented to a nationwide veterinary organization, the U.S. Animal Health Association, at its meeting in October.
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