FWP starts brucellosis testing in Sweet Water elk

A cow elk is taken by helicopter to waiting biologists last week south of Alder. The elk was tested for brucellosis and collared as part of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ brucellosis testing program.   Photo by FWP

A cow elk is taken by helicopter to waiting biologists last week south of Alder. The elk was tested for brucellosis and collared as part of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ brucellosis testing program. Photo by FWP

In an effort to get a better idea of the spread and prevalence of brucellosis in elk, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks captured, collared and tested cow elk last week south of Alder.

“The primary reason that we’re doing that is we’re trying to find out where that boundary is where we find burcellosis in elk and where we don’t,” said Neil Anderson, FWP biologist conducting the study.

Anderson and his crew spent Super Bowl Sunday tagging elk in the Sweet Water Area near the Blacktail Wildlife Management Area. They captured 100 elk and put GPS radio collars on 30 of them.

The testing south of Alder was part of a five-year effort to try and get a better handle on where brucellosis has spread in elk.

“This effort will be replicated in four other areas between 2012 and 2015 if sufficient funding can be secured,” read a FWP press release. “The study is estimated to cost about $300,000 a year.”

The researchers will follow the elk through the year to track their movements and monitor their interaction with livestock, according to the release.

Brucellosis is a hot-button issue in southwest Montana, particularly in the areas closest to Yellowstone National Park, like Madison County.

Brucellosis is a contagious bacterial infection that can cause pregnant ungulates, like cattle, bison and elk, to abort their calves. It can be transmitted from animal to animal through contact with afterbirth or aborted calves. The disease is known to occur in elk and bison herds in Yellowstone National Park.

In a 12-month period between 2007 and 2008 Montana had two positive brucellosis tests in cattle, causing the state to lose its brucellosis free status.

In response to this, the Montana Department of Livestock implemented a designated surveillance area encompassing the counties around Yellowstone National Park, including much of Madison County. Cattle producers within the DSA have to have a testing plan approved by the Department of Livestock.

John Anderson runs cattle south of Alder and some of the elk testing and trapping last week was done on his land. He operates in the DSA and tests his cattle every three years for brucellosis.

He’s pleased FWP is working to get a handle on the extent of brucellosis.

“I’m actually kind of excited that they’re finally doing something to get a little better handle on what the prevalence of what brucellosis actually is in the elk,” John Anderson said. “We’re kind of being held hostage by this brucellosis thing and they don’t definitively know what the prevalence of brucellosis is in the elk in this area.”

Like many Madison County ranchers, Anderson understands he has to share his range with elk and he also knows that elk can carry brucellosis. This year a herd of about 200 elk ate much of the alfalfa he had reserved for his cattle on range near Alder.

But this year, as part of this brucellosis study, FWP is going to work with Anderson on trying to haze elk from his ranch back onto state land and into the wildlife management area, John Anderson said.

The main concern is keeping elk and cattle separate during the time the elk are calving, Neil Anderson said.

“Keeping them separate that time of year is the most successful way of reducing the risk to livestock,” he said.

Beyond testing for brucellosis, John Anderson also vaccinates his cattle for the disease, which also helps against transmission of the disease.

FWP’s testing will focus on 30 hunting districts around Yellowstone, Neil Anderson said. The agency has a pretty good idea of the prevalence of the disease in areas near the park and so he’ll continue to work in circles testing elk populations further and further from the part to try and find the disease’s boundary.

“It makes more sense to try and take a more strategic approach,” he said.

During the past 30 years, FWP has tested about 8,000 elk for brucellosis mostly in the Greater Yellowstone Area north and west of the national park, according to the press release. The results of those tests showed brucellosis exposure rates that ranged from zero to two percent in the early 1990s. Depending on the testing technique used, more recent positive exposure rates ranged between five and 16 percent in areas north of Gardiner and on the east side of the Madison Valley.

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