Elk/brucellosis working group to hold first meeting Thursday

A Madison County rancher has been appointed to sit on the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks elk/brucellosis working group.

John Anderson ranches south of Alder in the Upper Ruby Valley and Sweetwater area. Over the past several years, he has had as many as 3,000 elk on rangeland where he grazes cattle.

Last year his ranch was the location of a Montana FWP project to trap and test 100 cow elk. The project’s objective was to begin studying the extent of brucellosis in elk. Of the 100 trapped in the upper Ruby Valley last year, 12 tested positive for exposure to brucellosis.

Anderson submitted his name to be on the working group because of the location of his ranch and his concern with the ongoing risk of brucellosis transmission from elk to cattle.

“I don’t think there’s any real easy answers here,” he said.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can occur in buffalo, cattle and elk. The disease can cause animals to abort their fetuses.

Under the Montana Department of Livestock Brucellosis Management Plan, the area around Yellowstone National Park, including much of Madison County, is part of a
Designated Surveillance Area. The DSA rules guide ranchers on developing a plan for regular testing and vaccination of their cattle.

This past fall, a bull bison from Ted Turner’s Snowcrest Ranch in the upper Ruby Valley tested positive for brucellosis.

The constant interaction between elk and cattle creates several management challenges in the effort to keep cattle disease free, Anderson said.

Despite the challenges in managing cattle and elk on the same ground, ranchers still need to graze cattle on public lands, Anderson said. It would be too easy to shut the ranchers off from grazing public lands to avoid conflict with elk. However, that would be economically devastating to many producers.

“That’s the main reason I’m there is to try and protect our own personal interests and the interests of our neighbors in this discussion about what we do with the problem,” he said. “The only thing I can see coming out of this committee would be to somehow mitigate the interaction between the bison and the elk in particular and the livestock at the critical time the elk are calving.”

The elk/brucellosis working group’s first meeting is Thursday and Friday in Bozeman, said FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim. FWP director Joe Maurier appointed the 11-member group. The agency received 40 applications from people interested in being on the group.

“The working group will lead an effort to examine effective elk management options and risk prevention efforts in several southwestern Montana hunting districts,” reads a press release from FWP. “The areas generally include hunting districts that border or are near Yellowstone National Park.”

The group will hopefully develop options for elk management that can be forwarded on to the FWP Commission, Aasheim said.

Over the years, the relationship between elk and cattle and the potential of brucellosis transmission has raised concern with ranchers around Yellowstone National Park. The working group was organized to help the agency develop potential solutions.

“This is something we know we have to address, so we’re looking for input,” he said.

The group will meet monthly through June. The agenda for this first meeting includes several presentations from brucellosis experts on the nature of the disease and its prevalence in elk herds in southwest Montana. The group will also work together to develop a problem statement to guide their future work.

The working group’s meeting will be at the FWP Region 3 headquarters on 19th Street in Bozeman. It is open to the public, but public comment won’t be taken, according to the press release. The public will have an opportunity to comment on any proposal developed by the group when it is considered by the FWP Commission.

The meeting will start at 1 p.m. Thursday and continue through Friday. For more information call 444-2612.

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