Media mogul Ted Turner is used to setting new precedents with his business ventures. Now, he's inadvertently setting a precedent with how Montana manages brucellosis.
Last month, a 7-year-old bison cow on Turner's Flying D Ranch outside of Bozeman tested positive for brucellosis, a contagious disease that causes female ungulates—specifically elk, bison and cattle—to abort. In the past, Turner's lone infected bison would have jeopardized the state's brucellosis-free status, spooked trading partners from buying Montana cattle and forced ranchers statewide to invest significant resources in testing and vaccinating all cattle slated for transport out of the state. But under sweeping new state and federal changes governing brucellosis management, only ranchers in the four-county area surrounding Turner's property—an area also responsible for two other domestic livestock brucellosis cases since 2007—will be affected.
The case marks the first time state livestock officials have been able to employ the new regulations.
"It didn't make sense to conduct a collective punishment in a part of the state that didn't have the risk," says Marty Zaluski, state veterinarian with the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL).
He adds that the remainder of the infected bison's herd, those testing negative for the bacteria, won't be slaughtered.
"Under the old rules, the herd would have to be depopulated for us to maintain our class-free status," Zaluski says.
For decades the state and federal government have worked to eradicate brucellosis and protect Montana's $1 billion per year cattle industry and its brucellosis-free status. For just as long, the details of that work has put conservationists, ranchers and wildlife managers at odds, with each group holding divergent opinions about how the bacterial infection—and the animals carrying the disease—should be managed.
The issue is again heating up as Montana livestock officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) undergo significant rewrites of both state and federal rules governing brucellosis management. New federal regulations have yet to be published, but they are spelled out in a 2009 publication titled, "A Concept Paper for a New Direction for the Bovine Brucellosis Program." For Montana, the most pertinent change involves switching from a statewide management area to "designated surveillance areas" that don't necessarily lump an entire state into one high-risk region.
DOL proposed changes to its own regulations that largely mirror those being crafted by APHIS. Although the public comment period on the DOL rewrite closed Nov. 29 and the changes will not be released until later this winter, the department is already employing the new rules in the field.
The overall regulatory shift has conservationists hoping for more changes. For instance, if cattle ranchers have less at stake, Yellowstone National Park's herd of roughly 3,600 free-roaming bison could be given wider berth to roam.
"We're playing under a new set of rules now," says Matt Skoglund, wildlife advocate for the National Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit dedicated to a range of conservation issues including bison advocacy. "The basis for hazing and slaughtering bison is just not there."
The DOL and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks every spring haze bison back into the park, aiming to prevent transmission from the wild animals—roughly half of them test positive for brucellosis—to domestic cattle. If frightening bison back into the park doesn't work and the lumbering ungulates linger, animals are captured and tested for brucellosis. Pregnant bison or those carrying the disease are slaughtered.
Conservation groups perennially argue the current strategy constitutes a heavy-handed approach, especially in light of the fact that there's never been a proven transmission of the disease between bison and cattle in the wild. In each of Montana's three confirmed brucellosis cases among domestic livestock since 2007, state wildlife officials say elk are the likely culprit.
Zaluski says the new rules could open the door to addressing some of the conservationists' concerns.
"Certainly, if the consequence of a brucellosis infection in livestock does not cost millions of dollars to the entire state, then perhaps there are some opportunities to look at bison management to see if we're putting our resources in the most efficient manner," he says.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association, which advocates on behalf of ranchers across the state, isn't as keen on easing Yellowstone bison restrictions.
"Relaxing [restrictions] is not a step forward but a step backwards," says Errol Rice, the group's executive vice president. "With regards to the wild bison in the park, we feel very strongly that the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) is working."
Rice acknowledges the fact that there's never been a proven transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle in the wild, but he argues that's a testament to the success of the existing Yellowstone plan.
It's unclear to all sides how the IBMP is impacted by the new state and federal regulations. A committee of IBMP stakeholders will address the issue at a meeting in early December.
"We'll be looking at bison management to see if we need to do things a little bit differently," says Zaluski.