The river valleys of Yellowstone radiate from the heart of the caldera as a weaving, sometimes adjoining, network of tendrils. This spectacular watershed system hosts one of the most active and diverse ecosystems in North America on the park’s protected and isolated plateau. The valleys, cut over the past 17 million years of major volcanic activity, also provide an escape route for wildlife when conditions within Yellowstone grow too harsh.
In order to understand the ever-resurfacing issues surrounding the ungulate disease brucellosis in Montana—and for that matter, Wyoming and Idaho—keep that landscape in mind. While seeking to preserve a geographic and ecological anomaly, members of the 1872 administrative staff that carved up the nation’s first national park had geographic politics in mind. However, Yellowstone’s boundaries do not contain the yearlong ranges of the megafauna that define the land. Not by a long shot.
It’s only when those animals inevitably come pouring out of the park that the bizarre microbial conflict of brucellosis arises.
Like many species of bacterial pathogens, the broad label of Brucella abortus represents a vast array of strains, but all transmit sexually among ungulates and trigger abortions within infected hosts. The disease can also carry, and effectively hop the species barrier, if a creature ingests the placental fluids of an infectious animal. While many mammals can spread or contract brucellosis, large ungulates prove particularly vulnerable.
“The very social structure of the bison herd allows the more ready transmission of brucellosis,” says State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski, Montana’s top livestock official. “There’s a real strong birth synchronicity there, so there’s a very high load of bacteria on the landscape.”
That simple biological similarity between bison and cattle, along with reports from livestock officials that nearly half of Yellowstone buffalo have been exposed to brucellosis, causes concern among ranchers who operate in the animal’s historic winter range. Since American cattlemen wiped the bacterial infection from domestic livestock populations, Yellowstone remains the last significant reservoir of brucellosis above the Rio Grande.
This past winter, unusually prolific snow accumulation on the caldera forced a colossal number of Yellowstone elk, bison and various deer species into the valleys surrounding the park. The mass exodus prompted the slaughter of more than 1,600 buffalo under the highly controversial Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), which involves four federal agencies and the Montana Department of Livestock.
The IBMP seeks to curb the spread of brucellosis from infectious buffalo to Montana cattle herds the way cows gave it to wildlife in the first place—direct contact during calving season. The ultimate goal was permanent eradication of the disease, but a Government Accountability Office report released in April criticizes the program as a consistent failure.
Despite the ongoing efforts to test and slaughter infected bison leaving the park in winter, no evidence exists to show a drop in bison exposure rates as isolated transmissions continue to permeate the government’s multi-million-dollar defenses. Nature, it seems, employs a more sophisticated method of returning the favor of infection.
While researchers struggle to understand the brucellosis transmission riddle, political complexities further mystify the issue—to the peril of both the ranching industry and wildlife.
Bob Sitz’s ranch rests on a golden tract of rolling foothills flanked by the geologically dramatic Tobacco Root Mountains immediately to the west. Rural mountain pasture surrounds the nearby prospecting town of Pony, which slips closer to ghost status every year.
On the Sitz property itself, the scene is pure industry. From this family ranch and another in Dillon, the lifelong cattleman sells predominately high-end Angus breeding steer to mostly out-of-state buyers. His family-owned line dates back to 1923 and the cows don’t go cheap.
“We sell seedstock. We sell genetics,” Sitz says. “We’re in the thoroughbred industry you could say.”
Just up the road, the Madison River Valley, one of Yellowstone’s most significant migratory corridors for wildlife, opens into the Ennis Lake basin, where Sitz and other ranchers grow their stock. Every year, Sitz takes his herd far up the Madison to the highlands around Hebgen Lake and on to a deeded ranch owned by a West Yellowstone local. If another brucellosis transmission were to strike, the Hebgen Lake area is one of several likely settings. Here, large numbers of wildlife seek to migrate down valley in the late winter months.
What a brucellosis infection means financially for the ranchers in this country mostly rests upon simple blind luck.
Since Montana went over its limit in early June by recording a second outbreak over a two-year period, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules now require greater testing requirements on state ranchers. For Sitz, the additional cost of screening until Montana regains a clean bill of health amounts to more than $30,000 a year.
“We would test all the cows, bulls and the heifers. And the animals we sell, we have to test those again,” Sitz says. “Basically, you’d have to eat the cost.”
The price goes up with proximity. Cattle geographically or genetically near to the infected herd face further government surveillance. To land a brucellosis-positive cow anytime means the destruction of any part of the herd exposed to the disease. Finally, the unfortunate rancher who shows up with the first positive test encounters a tougher scenario: destroy the whole herd or lose disease-free status for the entire state. One man in Daniel, Wyo., faces that difficult choice right now.
For Sitz, drawing the first diagnosis card would wipe clean 85 years of work in cattle genetics. Like many in his industry, the rancher expresses frustration with both state and federal governments that the fear of transmission remains an annual tradition.
“On the brucellosis issue, there’s the political side of it and there’s the are-we-going-to-do-anything-about-it side of it,” Sitz says. “We’re lacking on the are-we-going-to-do-anything-about-it side of it.”
Critics of this sentiment accuse some Yellowstone area ranchers of playing roulette with the entire state’s disease-free status. Gov. Brian Schweitzer—a purebred cattleman himself—characterizes grazing in these areas as “a risk behavior.”
But the real problem, some industry leaders counter, lies with the USDA and outmoded regulations employed by its disease management division, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS). The agency drafted many of these parameters on how to deal with a disease outbreak when brucellosis still constituted a serious human health risk.
Consumers once contracted the debilitating disease through drinking milk, but industrial pasteurization processes fixed that problem long ago. Technological advances and the absence of the pathogen in modern cattle herds makes many wonder why the old system still exists, and why state and federal agencies continue to chase brucellosis across the boundaries of federal land.
Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, a nonprofit hunters’ group based out of Bozeman, argues a slaughter-based policy used to eradicate brucellosis can never succeed in wildlife. His organization, along with the much larger Buffalo Field Campaign of West Yellowstone, promotes an immediate shift away from brucellosis eradication strategy.
“How many other diseases is APHIS trying to eradicate?” Hockett asks.
Many Montana officials and livestock industry leaders—even some who question the wisdom of APHIS regulations—disagree with completely abandoning eradication goals. Zaluski says the problem with a complete shift in disease policy sends the wrong message to developing nations. Agriculture lobbyists add that part of the objective should also include promoting healthy wildlife. Yellowstone area ranchers chime in that the only reason brucellosis now poses little or no risk can be traced back to zealous industry action throughout the 20th century.
“[Yellowstone Park Superin-tendent] Suzanne Lewis committed that brucellosis shouldn’t have a future in wildlife,” says Errol Rice, vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. “It’s not going to be easy because there are interests on all sides of the issue, but the livestock industry now has been committed to reaching out to the wildlife community and saying, ‘Look, we need some help.’”
Conservationists remain reticent to oblige, having sensed a new front in the issue developing for some time now—a shift toward elk.
Deep in the Paradise Valley of south-central Montana, the wildland of Yellowstone interfaces abruptly with an isolated ranching community nestled below Emigrant Peak. Sometime over the previous winter, APHIS investigators believe elk passed brucellosis to cattle owned by area rancher Art Burns, identified in a Bozeman Daily Chronicle report.
When news broke of the reported infection in late May, the livestock industry bemoaned the inevitable loss of disease-free status that would follow another brucellosis diagnosis. Conservation groups wondered if the feds would again try and make the case for an elk source, as they did last year after an infection in Bridger.
According to APHIS epidemiologist John Belfrage, the results of the blood tests don’t directly point back to elk—to date, the feds lack a DNA fingerprint of the elk brucellosis strain—but the agency says it can reasonably infer that infection source from available data. The researcher explains the lab results struck cattle from the equation and a bison transmission remains impossible since none supposedly passed federally guarded pinch points further up valley.
“You have to make estimations and educated guesses based on what you know about the disease and how it progresses,” Belfrage says. “It’s a detective game—you have to rule out certain scenarios. Nobody’s out there on the range to see it actually happen.”
Belfrage’s explanation, however, fails to satisfy wildlife advocates who worry that technically inconclusive reports, phrased conclusively for political reasons, might fuel potentially cockamamie schemes to slaughter Yellowstone elk. It didn’t take long for political interests to validate those concerns.
In June, the California-based U.S. Cattlemen’s Association offered up the wildly unpopular notion of expanding bison-like wildlife management strategies to other Yellowstone ungulates. In no uncertain terms, the group’s statements called on APHIS—which stands on loose jurisdictional ground in managing park bison—to thin elk numbers with methods similar to those in use by the IBMP. The national group’s proposal drew tense reactions from wildlife advocates and hunters alike, many of whom challenge whether wildlife numbers have anything to do with the problem of brucellosis.
With perhaps poor timing, the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau released a separate, but ostensibly similar, plan less than a month later. This proposal, dubbed the “Hot Spot” management plan, would set up disease control districts around a point of cattle infection. Once the Hot Spot perimeter goes up, any elk, bison or cattle within that area would face government testing and brucellosis-positive animals would be destroyed. Lobbyists promoting the plan advertise it as a temporary solution to infection issues until more permanent fixes become evident.
The primary difference between the two proposals is significant: the Montana version only acts in a specific area following a specific event. Oddly enough, that pitch caught more flak than its seemingly more-controversial counterpart, which essentially seeks to eradicate a disease from an elk population nearly on par with the human population of Billings. John Youngberg, spokesman for the Montana Farm Bureau and a chief advocate of the Hot Spot plan, contends the opposition misrepresented key facts to blur the lines of intention.
“We’re not going to kill and trap all the elk. We just need to have statistically relative numbers so we can track them, so we know where they’re coming from, so we know how many are positive,” Youngberg says. “We’re not vaccinating every one of them. How in the world would you ever do that?”
To Hockett and other opponents, the notion of trying to manage elk in any capacity appears as logistically ludicrous as it is politically challenging. With current technology, any plan to manage brucellosis in wildlife hinges on slaughtering test-positive animals, since administering wildlife-effective vaccines—in development at Montana State University—would run about $6,000 a head.
“The credibility of the plan is laughable,” Hockett says. “If you really want to eradicate brucellosis, what is that going to take? What they’re talking about is a draconian management system that will go on forever.”
The monitoring part of the plan, at least, isn’t terribly far afield. Neil Anderson, a biologist with Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), reports the agency has made some progress in tracking brucellosis through Yellowstone elk populations. Future plans involve distributing blood test kits to hunters to expand the data pool.
But a problem still exists, says FWP Wildlife Division Director Ken McDonald. His agency manages wildlife, but not disease. The Department of Livestock, meanwhile, manages disease, but not in wildlife. When FWP officials talk about elk management, they mean primarily through hunting and maybe spot harassment—not IBMP-like testing and slaughter.
“A bigger issue than brucellosis is hunting access on private land—property rights,” McDonald says. “If you have a big ranch in the middle of this land that doesn’t allow any hunting, the elk figure it out pretty quick and bam—there they are. From a wildlife-management perspective, that pretty much limits our options.”
Montana authorities need little to identify the largest disease risk in elk. Yet, even with a management plan, they couldn’t do anything about it.
Spackled across valleys trailing south from Yellowstone, Wyoming operates a system of feedgrounds where visitors can witness elk in a pseudo-feral setting. These facilities, which include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife-run National Elk Refuge, were set up long ago primarily to lure the animals away from nearby pastures.
The idea worked perhaps too well, as elk herds flocked to the easy sources of food. Meanwhile, a tourism economy began to grow healthy and powerful around the critter welfare states. By the time scientists came to question the wisdom of subsidizing wildlife survival, the refuge and other sites already carried some heavy clout in Cheyenne.
“There’s a coalition that’s evolved in support of the feedgrounds,” says Michael Scott, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, one of several eco groups engaged in litigation to shut the facilities down.
The alliance of interest groups protecting the feedgrounds include Wyoming ranchers benefiting from the diversion, the hay producers that sell feed to the government, the Jackson Hole tourism economy and outfitters who depend on the reliable hunting of “hatchery elk.” That coalition enjoys the support of Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and recently secured fresh lease extensions for feedgrounds operating on U.S. Forest Service lands.
“The feedlots to a large extent lack controversy in Wyoming,” says Zaluski.
Across the border in Montana, the opinion is quite different. Critics of the feedgrounds point to a 1997 study published by veterinary researchers Norman Cheville and Dave McCullough that continues to provide the canon on brucellosis in Yellowstone elk. The report, which acknowledges the risk of elk serving as a brucellosis vector to cattle as “real but small,” explains that the disease almost becomes a non-issue when the animals aren’t artificially concentrated during calving. For elk, unlike bison, bearing young is not a group activity.
So phase out the feedgrounds and disperse the elk populations, Yellowstone conservation groups argue, and the transmission problems vanish. Scott admits the theory isn’t proven science yet, but following the smoldering failure of elk vaccination programs in Wyoming, a pilot program more than deserves consideration.
“[Management] is a pointless exercise as long as you have elk on feedlots in Wyoming with 50 percent infection rates,” Scott says. “If it works, there’s the roadmap for success.”
In a July 22 statement, Schweitzer also blasted Wyoming for keeping the feedgrounds open while other states struggle with the brucellosis quandary.
“It now appears that Wyoming Game and Fish and USDA are the only two entities who believe these feedgrounds are not a major contributing factor to the Greater Yellowstone Area being the last remaining reservoir for brucellosis in the nation,” Schweitzer wrote in an open letter to USDA Secretary Ed Schafer.
Freudenthal’s office did not respond to requests to comment in this report.
Representatives of the Montana livestock industry agree to the end that shutting down the feedgrounds is the first step in reducing the elk transmission risk. The honeymoon pretty much ends there.
When state livestock officials first announced the Paradise Valley diagnosis, Schweitzer issued another statement—this one directed at factions of the cattle industry for opposing an idea introduced by Schweitzer last summer. By enacting “split-state status” under existing APHIS code, Schweitzer asserted Montana could have avoided the federal downgrading and corresponding testing requirements that now await the state ranching
Split-state status allows for the partition of a high-risk area into its own brucellosis management district. Some agriculture lobbies—most notably the Montana Stockgrowers—opposed the plan because it would permanently devalue cattle herds around Yellowstone. Industry leaders also feared the segregation of “problem areas” would make the rest of the state forget about the brucellosis issue altogether.
Some ranchers near Yellowstone subject to the high-risk partition felt betrayed by the governor’s comments. They contend responsible testing in the Paradise Valley is the only reason the infection became public knowledge in the first place. Helena insiders interpreted the statement as a direct shot at the Montana Stockgrowers Association and other groups that opposed Schweitzer’s plan.
Errol Rice of the Stockgrowers suggests, in fact, that split-state status cannot be enacted until a state loses the disease-free label, a point confirmed by APHIS officials.
Schweitzer responds that he knows the facts, and that immediate implementation of split-state status was never the objective. The governor says his plan, forged through negotiations with APHIS, rather aimed to get the state in position to make a designation change if another transmission occurred. Like anything else involving a federal classification, “splitting” a state takes time and paperwork.
“My negotiation was simply this: Look, we will prepare the 11 points we need to get split-state status,” Schweitzer says of the APHIS talks. “I don’t know how I could have done more [to get out in front of the problem]. If there’s one issue since becoming governor that I can honestly take to my grave, it’s brucellosis.”
Soon afterwards, Schweitzer says, the Stockgrowers and other groups then kicked back the countermotion of simply upping the screening of herds around Yellowstone. The governor opposed that strategy, thinking it might yield another diagnosis with no course of action. Within a year, brucellosis appeared in the Paradise Valley.
“It has been crystal clear that what I said would happen, happened,” Schweitzer says.
By no means is the Montana ranching industry unified in its opposition to Schweitzer. Brett DeBruycker of the Montana Cattlemen’s Association, another lobby organization, points out there’s little difference between the Hot Spot plan and split-state status.
“Call it whatever you want—split-state status is just the term APHIS uses,” he says. “It’s sad this has become a wedge issue.”
Still, even those in the ranching industry critical of Board of Livestock policy under Schweitzer typically support the politics of one administration appointee—Belgrade sheep rancher Becky Weed. She opposed the governor’s 2007 split-state proposal on many of the same points as ranchers.
“We can demonstrate to ourselves and our trading partners that these are healthy animals,” she says. “If a case shows up in Pray this week, you are no more or less likely to get a case in Dillon next week than you were four months ago. So why lump them together?”
Weed instead wants to update the Uniform Methods and Rules on brucellosis—APHIS’ admittedly outdated playbook on disease—to remove some of the regulatory punch. The plan also looks at increasing surveillance of disease progression in wildlife and taking steps to reduce brucellosis prevalence, like decommissioning the Wyoming feedgrounds.
“There’s a fair amount of agreement from parties in all three states that this is a sensible thing to try,” Weed says.
The concept faces several challenges, though none more daunting than time itself. Changing federal rules takes years—perhaps even longer than beginning to manage an elk population the size of Yellowstone’s. While some on the range find that hard to believe, federal officials reply that’s the law.
“There’s just certain processes we have to go through,” says Jerry Diemer, associate regional director for APHIS. “It’s cumbersome, but it allows for public participation.”
Until then, the Department of Livestock faces several options, including split-state status and the ranching industry’s Hot Spot plan. According to Zaluski, the two appear mutually exclusive, but he’s examining both.
“None of these plans are perfect—everybody knows that,” Zaluski says. “So really [the department’s] role is to look at the strengths and weaknesses and come up with a recommendation for the Board of Livestock.”
Among wildlife advocates, half-hearted support for split-state status occupies a lesser role than opposition to the agriculture lobbies’ standing alternative. In addition to expanding Montana’s wildlife management policies to elk, many conservationists see the Hot Spot plan as predicated on assumptions that speak to more fundamental issues. For one thing, they don’t buy the APHIS case for an elk source at Paradise Valley or Bridger, and wonder why federal officials withheld investigation results in the older case for more than a year.
When Freedom of Information Act requests to APHIS failed to yield documents, Hockett and Darrell Giest of the Buffalo Field Campaign legally challenged the Montana Department of Livestock to hand over the report, which received a copy as an IBMP partner. Going for the easier target worked and the inconclusive findings they recovered raises the ongoing question of whether cattle imported from Mexico actually pose a greater transmission risk than bison or elk.
Those same critics now believe APHIS’ delay in acting on the Paradise Valley diagnosis might also be politically motivated.
“What a great time to shoot, shovel and shut up,” Hockett says. “APHIS’ regulations are so lax that you don’t know if cows are being removed from the system.”
For that matter, those on the livestock side of the coin also suggest the issue runs deeper than outward appearances suggest.
“There’s a political boundary in the works,” Sitz says. “It’s been known for quite a while that we want to enlarge the park, but nobody wants to pay for it. If you want to enlarge the park, the easiest way to do it is to put restrictions on people who use the land.”
Scientific contentiousness notwithstanding, the main operative in the heated brucellosis debate remains the age-old Western quagmire of land use. When insiders speak of disease management and policy, they often pull out detailed maps or refer to geographic boundaries as if they’ve walked the land a hundred times. As Schweitzer points out, the brucellosis issue and controversial grazing leases near Yellowstone remain indelibly bound together.
The questions that arise from this conflict are not easy to answer.
What land does wildlife graze upon at certain times of year? Do the migratory corridors cross deeded land or Forest Service turf? Do grazing leases stand as an obstacle or not? These considerations are as real as the difference between right and privilege.
“If you sever off an animal’s access to its critical habitat, you’ve built an endless bureaucracy,” Hockett argues. “We could downsize government and turn the wildlife into ecological and economic assets. Just get the government out of the way and let them go.”
“The north and west boundaries of the park make no sense geographically,” adds Scott of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
Yet, for the livestock industry and individual stockgrowers satisfied with APHIS’ investigations on Montana’s recent brucellosis transmissions, the time to hesitate is through. They say dealing with elk represents the next step in brucellosis management, so Montana needs to start talking about how sooner rather than later.
“The fact that this has shown up from elk has forced everybody, from all sides, to acknowledge that this problem is with us,” Weed says. “The sky isn’t falling, but we have to deal with it.”
As one federal official pontificated at a Board of Livestock meeting earlier this summer, the complexities of the issue make a perfect solution impossible to pin down. To come to an educated opinion from any side, the bounty of facts to consider can appear staggering.
This, at least, remains clear—something is going to happen.