Anti-terror bill targets Yellowstone bison, elk herds

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2002:

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK–The bison management wars along
the northern border of Yellowstone National Park may intensify with
the anticipated passage of the 2002 Farm Bill, if the joint
committee working to reconcile the different versions passed by the
U.S. Senate and House of Representatives accepts the inclusion of the
Animal Health Protection Act, added as a late amendment to the
Senate version by Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa).
The amendment purportedly was written to speed the USDA
response to epidemics in livestock, such as the hoof-and-mouth
outbreak that devastated the rural British economy in 2001, and also
to better enable the USDA to deal with bioterrorism.

However, the amendment would give the USDA authority over
any animal bearing an illness which might be passed to livestock.
The Interior Department, whose management philosophy favors
letting natural disease outbreaks take their course, was reportedly
alerted to the implications for the Yellowstone elk and bison herds
by the legislative analysts for several conservation groups. While
the USDA and state governments have tried since the 1940s to
eradicate the livestock disease brucellosis, it is endemic among the
Yellowstone elk and bison herds, albeit to little evident effect on
those species.
As elk rarely interact with cattle, they are not considered
likely to pass brucellosis back into cattle herds from which the
disease has been eliminated. Bison, however, are closely related
to domestic cattle and would share the same grazing range if allowed
to do so. In theory, this might allow bison to reintroduce
brucellosis to the cattle of the officially brucellosis-free states
of Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, although there is no actual record
of bison ever transmitting brucellosis to cattle.
“For 60 years, the Montana and Wyoming state veterinarians
and the USDA have wanted to come into Yellowstone, round up elk and
bison, test them, and kill the ones who have brucellosis,” chief
Yellowstone scientist John Varley told The New York Times. “My guess
is that this would be their first priority,” if the Harkin amendment
Varley said that up to 80% of the Yellowstone bison herd
might be slaughtered under that regimen.
Currently, only infected bison who cross out of the park
into Montana are killed. The present policy replaced the old Montana
policy of killing any Yellowstone bison who entered the state. The
killing was done at different times by sport hunters, paid marksmen,
and state troopers. Protests against killing the bison were led by
the Fund for Animals during the 1980s and early 1990s, and have been
led since the introduction of the present policy by the Buffalo Field
On April 19, as the Harkin amendment began to attract
national news media interest, the Montana Department of Livestock
announced that brucellosis had been found in 21 of 34 bison captured
as they wandered out of Yellowstone two days earlier. The 21 were
trucked to slaughter while the remainder were returned to public
land. Another 100 bison were reportedly moving out of the park in
that vicinity.
The same day, Idaho state veterinarian Bob Hillman announced
that blood testing had confirmed the presence of brucellosis among a
small cattle herd in the Teton Valley, 35 miles from the boundary
between Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park. Hillman said that
the cattle had contact with a wild elk herd among whom brucellosis
was found in 1997, and has been confirmed in each year since.
Brucellosis was last detected among cattle in Idaho in 1989,
and last appeared among cattle anywhere in the west in 1990, when
the last cases were found in California. The only states not now
USDA-certified as brucellosis-free are Missouri and Texas.
The brucellosis infection rate among elk at the National Elk
Refuge, south of Yellowstone near Jackson, Wyoming, fell from an
average of 42% during the 1970s to 23% in 2000, 8% among 13 elk
tested in 2001, and 17.5% among 40 elk tested in early 2002. The
low percentage in 2001 is believed to be a statistical fluke
resulting from a small sample size. National Elk Refuge biologist
Bruce Smith attributes most of the progress to improving the
distribution of alfalfa pellets given to the elk as emergency winter
rations, so that the elk are less inclined to concentrate in areas
where they infect each other.
At the Greys River Feedground, run by the state of Wyoming,
the brucellosis infection rate has climbed to 50% during the past two
years despite a vaccination program started in 1985. The Wyoming
Game and Fish Department reportedly suspects the cause was a bad
batch of vaccine.

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