Legislator aims at elk

As the number of elk infected with brucellosis in and around Yellowstone National Park rises—and with it the threat of the ungulate spreading the disease to domestic cattle—a Montana legislator seeks to aggressively manage elk the same way the state does bison.

Sen. Debby Barrett, R-Dillon, has requested a draft bill, LC0029, to "Expand the bison management plan to include other wildlife."

The bill has yet to be written, but Barrett says expanding the Interagency Wildlife Management Plan—a 10-year-old pact among the National Park Service, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and Montana Department of Livestock (DOL)—could give Montana's livestock industry influence over elk management in the state.

click to enlarge CHAD HARDER

Barrett says that under her proposal the DOL wouldn't manage elk, per se, but it would manage brucellosis, giving the agency influence over FWP's elk management.

"Diseases in wildlife are detrimental to livestock, wildlife and humans and they have to be addressed," Barrett says, "especially in Montana where we have a constitutional right to a clean and healthy environment—and that means everyone, even livestock producers."

Elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem appear to be increasingly affected by brucellosis, a bacterial infection that causes cattle, elk and bison to abort their young. In late March, a U.S. Geological Survey study showed that the prevalence of the disease among the region's more than 100,000 free-ranging elk was between 8 and 20 percent in 2006-2007, up from 0 to 7 percent in 1991-1992.

Montana's billion-dollar cattle industry lost its brucellosis-free status in 2008 after cattle infections were discovered. Wildlife managers suspect elk caused the infections. The state regained the brucellosis-free status last July.

While transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle has never been documented in the wild, state and federal agencies have largely focused their efforts on bison. The animals have been hazed, quarantined and slaughtered to ensure that they don't infect cattle.

"We can't haze the elk and do all of that stuff," Barrett says, "but we have to address this disease."

Multiple FWP wildlife managers declined to comment before seeing a draft of the proposed legislation.

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