Hunting, brucellosis, and the Yellowstone wolf reintroduction 10 years after

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2005:

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK–Ten years after the January 1995
reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, elk near
Gardiner, Montana, are getting a reprieve from seasonal human
hunting pressure. A planned resumption of bison hunting along the
northern park boundary has been postponed–not directly because of
wolves, but because of increased local sensitivity toward the views
of non-hunters.
Growing numbers of wolves are killed attacking livestock,
however, and wildlife managers in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming are
already anticipating the opportunity to sell wolf hunting permits
when wolves come off the federal Endangered Species List.
The role of wolves in regulating Yellowstone elk and bison
numbers is still disputed, but biologists increasingly credit the
return of wolves with increasing the health of the herds by devouring
sick animals, including those who carry brucellosis and chronic
wasting disease.

Brucellosis, called undulant fever in humans, can cause
spontaneous abortion in pregnant females of any vulnerable species,
including domestic cattle. It can be passed to humans through
consuming animal products or byproducts, such as unpasteurized milk.
Montana has for more than 20 years sought to prevent
brucellosis from spreading out of Yellowstone to infect domestic
cattle –which can occur in theory, but in fact has never
documentedly occurred among free-ranging cattle and bison.
From the winter of 1985-1986 through the winter of 1990-1991,
hunters were authorized to kill any bison who wandered north out of
the park. The toll fluctuated with climatic conditions from six in
1986-1987 up to 589 in 1988-1989 and back down to four in 1989-1990.
Later the killing was done by state and federal government
workers. The current management plan involves trapping and testing
bison who move north. Bison who test positive for brucellosis are
sent to slaughter. Others are hazed back to the park or relocated.
The Montana legislature in 2003 authorized a resumption of
bison hunting this winter, but a week after newly inaugurated
Governor Brian Schweitzer appointed three new members to the state
Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission, the commission voted 4-1 on
January 10 to cancel the month-long bison season. It was to have
started on January 15.
“The commission also unanimously agreed to refund all the
money people paid to apply for bison permits,” wrote Jennifer McKee
of the Billings Gazette. 8,200 people applied for just 10 tags,
McKee wrote, “to be drawn for the opportunity to hunt on a
25,000-acre parcel north of Yellowstone. Agency scientists told the
commission that although the parcel was relatively large, the bison
were concentrated in two small areas.
“All of the commissioners said they were determined to have a
bison hunt this fall,” McKee added, “and would work to design a
free-chase bison hunt better than the shortened, confined hunt
envisioned for this year. The commission decided to draw 10 names
from among the applicants,” McKee continued. “Those 10 people will
be offered the opportunity to purchase the first 10 licenses for the
anticipated 2005-06 hunting season.”
“The buffalo are not in the clear by a long shot,”
cautioned the Buffalo Field Campaign in a prepared statement. “While
the hunt is cancelled for this year, the buffalo are still under

New strategies

Going on to criticize the current Yellowstone bison
management policy, the Buffalo Field Campaign asserted that “Bison
are also threatened with a new quarantine and vaccination program by
agencies who would foolishly attempt to eradicate brucellosis.”
Since brucellosis is endemic in the Yellowstone region elk
herd, and apparently does pass from elk to bison, trying to
eliminate any risk to cattle by focusing on bison instead of
addressing the disease in both bison and elk would appear to be
Most zoonotic disease experts, however, would agree that
eradicating brucellosis is a worthwhile goal.
Montana Governor Schweitzer on January 18 outlined a new
strategy to Billings Gazette reporter Mike Stark.
“His ideas include taking several years to run all park bison
through a quarantine facility, where they would be tested for the
disease,” Stark wrote. “Those who show signs of brucellosis would
be destroyed or hunted, and healthy animals would be adopted to
Native American tribes or private landowners. Over time, the
herd–recently estimated at 4,200–would be reconstituted with
animals who were adopted out, or their offspring. For a brief
period, perhaps about 90 days, Yellowstone would be without bison.”
Said Schweitzer, “In order to be brucellosis-free, you have
to be bison-free for a period of time.”
The 19-member Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Team on
December 15, 2004 recommended a similar strategy to Governor Dave
Freudenthal to try to eradicate brucellosis in elk. Once officially
free of brucellosis in cattle, Wyoming has had growing numbers of
detected cases since late 2003. The cattle are believed to have
become infected by elk, who are most likely to carry brucellosis if
they have congregated at any of the 23 state-managed elk feeding
stations, or at the National Elk Refuge near Jackson Hole.
National Elk Refuge manager Barry Reiswig objected to
Associated Press that testing and slaughtering elk to combat
brucellosis would be “ridiculously expensive” and ultimately
unsuccessful. It also would be hugely unpopular with hunters, who
are already unhappy about declining herds, currently blamed on
Two hunters who shot a wolf in the Bridger-Teton National
Forest in September 2002 recently drew plea-bargain sentences for
misdemeanor killing of an endangered species in U.S. District Court
in Green River, Wyoming. James Brent, 25, of Diamond-ville, on
January 17, 2005 drew four days in jail, was ordered to pay $2,628
in fines and restitution, lost his hunting privileges for two years,
and will spend a year on probation. Levi Adams, 26, of Opal,
received the same penalty in November 2004.
Trying to reduce antipathy toward wolves in Wyoming, the
U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removed nearly 30 wolves from the state
in 2004, staff biologist Mike Jimenez told reporters on January 16,
Seven of the eight wolves who had belonged to the Owl Creek
pack were killed, Jiminez said, including two males who were shot
on January 9. Only one female from the pack survives. During 2004
the wolves were blamed for killing six cattle and a horse.

Wolves & ESA

Interior Secretary Gale Norton announced on January 3 that
after February 2, state agencies and property owners in Idaho and
Montana–but not Wisconsin–will be allowed to kill wolves without
prior written approval, if the wolves are demonstrably pursuing
“Under the old rule, the wolf had to have teeth in the
livestock,” U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wolf recovery team leader Ed
Bangs told Rebecca Boone of Associated Press. “Under the new rule
the wolf has to be a foot away, chasing them.”
Summarized Boone, “The wolves have thrived and now exceed
recovery goals. About 825 wolves live in Montana, Idaho, and
Wyoming,” more than 450 of them in Idaho, “before they can be
removed from Endangered Species Act protection, each of the three
states must have management plans approved by the federal government.
The Idaho and Montana plans have been approved, but Wyoming’s was
rejected, and that state is suing. The wolves will not be delisted
until that dispute is resolved.”
Wolf predation on livestock throughout the west, mostly in
the Yellowstone region, nearly doubled in 2004, to three times the
volume projected by the 1994 environmental impact statement on the
probable outcomes of wolf reintroduction. The toll included 110
cattle, 442 sheep, and six other animals.
On the other hand, a single severe blizzard often kills more
The 1994 impact statement also estimated that, “Loss of hunting
opportunities would cost the regional economy between $207,000 and
$857,000 annually in spending by hunters, recalled Bozeman Chronicle
staff writer Scott McMllion. “But that same study predicted that
antlerless elk hunting would drop by no more than 30% because of
wolves. For whatever reason, the northern Yellowstone elk herd is
half the size it was in 1994,” when it peaked at 19,000.
The Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission issued 2,800
elk hunting permits in 2000, but on December 15, 2004 agreed to
issue just 148 in 2006.
“The impact statement predicted an extra $23 million in
visitor spending related to wolves,” McMillion added. “While wolves
are a popular attraction, and are more visible than anyone
predicted, overall park visitation has remained steady.”
Missoula economist John Duffield, who did much of the 1994
analysis, has just begun a follow-up study, McMillion said.
About 165 to 170 wolves actually inhabit the park,
Yellowstone chief wolf biologist Doug Smith told McMillion. The
number seems stable, and has actually declined slightly from the
peak population of 174, reflecting the reductions of the elk and
bison herds. Reducing the numbers of elk has allowed more willow
trees to grow, enabling beavers to build more dams and expand
habitat for many other species.
Smith noted that despite the recent decline of the
Yellowstone elk herd, it remains much larger than it was in 1967,
when the National Park Service quit shooting elk for population

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