Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has delayed until November its commission’s consideration of a controversial 2015 elk-brucellosis management plan aimed at disease outbreaks in the Paradise Valley.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission was scheduled to take up the issue on Oct. 16.

“We have information still coming in to us, and we thought it better to wait for that information to finish coming in,” said Quentin Kujala, FWP wildlife management section chief.

Sporting groups have sued FWP over its 2014 elk-brucellosis management plan and wrote a letter to the agency’s commission outlining reasons they believe the plan is flawed and should be reconsidered. After the lawsuit was filed, FWP agreed not to issue any elk kill permits this past spring. The permits were one way FWP proposed to haze elk off private lands.

The Skyline Sportsmen’s Association and Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club, through their Bozeman attorney, also are requesting that an environmental impact review be performed before any further actions are taken to haze, fence out or kill elk on private land in an attempt to control the spread of brucellosis.

Hunters’ contention

The complicated and controversial issue has pitted hunters against landowners and state and federal agencies.

“The hunters are the ones who are getting seriously screwed on this,” said Kathryn QannaYahu, a Bozeman woman who has burrowed into reams of research data and attended numerous meetings on the brucellosis issue.

The sportsmen’s lawsuit, pending before state District Judge Mike Menahan in Helena, was based in part on her research.

Cattle ranchers would disagree, saying they are bearing the brunt of a disease that can limit their income as well as the genetic makeup of valuable cattle herds. Ranchers fear brucellosis because it can cause pregnant cattle to abort.

An outbreak can force the killing of infected cattle and quarantining of a herd. The disease is believed to be transferred when cattle come in contact with birthing material from an infected elk. Keeping the animals separate when elk are giving birth is believed to be an effective tool to control outbreaks.

At issue is FWP’s plan to allow up to 250 elk to be taken by permitted landowners and by hunters during special hunts meant to disperse elk. In 2015, the hunts could take place much later into the spring elk calving season than has been previously allowed and also could provide kill permits to landowners.

The plan also calls for building fences, partly paid for by FWP, to keep cattle and elk separate during the spring when the risk of brucellosis transmission is highest. FWP is almost wholly funded by the selling of hunting and fishing licenses, so spending sportsmen and women’s dollars on projects to aid landowners who may not allow public hunting is a sore point.

‘No smoking gun’

Here are some of the reasons the sporting groups are citing to support their request for an environmental impact statement:

It has never been conclusively proven that elk in the Paradise Valley, where cattle have tested positive for exposure to brucellosis, were the source of the cattle infections. After cattle that came from Paradise Valley to a Bridger ranch tested positive in 2007, the U.S. Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service stated that the cattle didn't get the disease from other livestock, but they could not determine if the animals got the disease from bison or elk. Despite this analysis, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Montana Department of Livestock veterinarian Marty Zaluski began pointing to elk as the possible cause of the infections based on epidemiological investigations that ruled out other vectors.

“The Department of Livestock is very careful — they say ‘probably, possibly, more than likely’ — about pointing a finger at elk for the Bridger infection,” QannaYahu said.

A 2012 APHIS study of all brucellosis outbreaks in the Greater Yellowstone Area since 2002, including outbreaks in Wyoming and Idaho, found only one case where transmission between a cow and elk could be confirmed by an identical brucellosis gene. Even then, the researcher admitted that the data didn’t “definitively indicate the direction of transmission (i.e., elk to bison to cattle or vice versa).”

However, in the last two years, newer technology has been employed and old GYA samples have been retested. Last year, Jack Rhyan of the National Wildlife Research Center, was the lead author of a paper that claimed that the brucellosis infections in cattle and farmed bison were “closely related to — and sometimes indistinguishable from — isolates from wild elk.”

But as Zaluski pointed out, such research provides “no smoking gun … except showing that there is a lot of genetic commonality between the three isolates.”

He noted that even though the new analysis is more detailed, it can only infer the direction of the transmission, yet when combined with what’s known about cattle and elk movements it can help investigators deduce that the disease came from wildlife. He added that knowing there is a high risk for brucellosis transmission in the Paradise Valley means that “Montanans have a responsibility to try to mitigate that risk” and called FWP’s proposals to manage risk through its elk plan: direct, specific and targeted.

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QannaYahu sees a bogeyman lurking at the edges of the issue.

“There’s a government-oriented brucellosis plan, an APHIS shakedown, if states want to keep their brucellosis-free status,” she said. “They’re pinning it on elk with no evidence.”

This year FWP will expand its elk study into the Paradise Valley and along the north face of the Absaroka Mountains, according to Neil Anderson, FWP’s wildlife lab supervisor. This will be the fifth year of the elk study that captures elk, takes blood samples and collars them to study elk movements and understand the prevalence of exposure to brucellosis.

Researchers are also hoping to find out why the disease seems to be more prevalent in cattle in the Paradise Valley, even though infected elk roam many other areas of the state.

Requesting a review

Another one of the main arguments made by the Anaconda and Skyline sporting groups is that although the 2004 Montana Elk Management Plan underwent an environmental review, it only marginally addressed the issue of dealing with brucellosis and didn’t get into specifics. They contend an extensive environmental review is necessary to study the implications of FWP’s actions.

Last year, Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, asked the Montana Legislative Services Division to explain FWP’s statutory authority to deal with issues like keeping elk and cattle separate for disease-control. In a written response, Legislative Services noted FWP has broad powers to undertake a number of activities, including hazing, animal relocation and damage hunts without conducting an environmental review.

However, the Montana Environmental Policy Act states in part that the purpose of requiring an environmental assessment or environmental impact statement is to “assist the Legislature in determining whether laws are adequate to address impacts to Montana's environment and to inform the public and public officials of potential impacts resulting from decisions made by state agencies.”

The sporting groups note that in the past FWP has conducted environmental reviews pertaining to wolves, grizzly bears and bison. “Why are Montana’s elk somehow less deserving of MEPA’s protections?” the groups ask.

After complaints, FWP did modify its 2015 plan to require environmental assessments for every fence proposed to be constructed by landowners in the Paradise Valley to keep elk and cattle separated.

Seeking access

Although the state would undertake a variety of actions to try and disperse elk to prevent the spread of brucellosis, it’s troubling to the sporting groups that there is no requirement that participating landowners allow public hunting. It has been shown that congregating elk are more likely to transmit brucellosis. Elk are often drawn to agriculture fields to feed. Without hunting pressure, the elk will congregate on private lands increasing the chance that elk will infect each other, the sporting groups argue.

“They’re beautiful elk herds when (landowners) are selling land but vermin and diseased when they want help from FWP,” QannaYahu said.

In the past, to receive state funding for fencing material to keep wildlife out of haystacks, the landowner had to allow public hunting.

In its 2015 proposal, FWP stated that by working with landowners it hopes to incrementally bring landowners around to public hunts. The plan states: “While public hunting access is not initially required for a landowner to receive FWP brucellosis risk management assistance, effectively identifying and minimizing risky concentrations of elk is considered a necessary component of comprehensive risk management over time. FWP and the landowner may approach this collaboration incrementally.”

A paper written by Yellowstone National Park biologists raises another issue as well: that killing elk to try to eliminate the spread of brucellosis could actually backfire. In the paper, the authors refer to an earlier study that showed that animals that have been exposed to brucellosis could be repositories of resistance to the bacteria.

The sporting groups conclude their 11-page commentary to FWP noting that to adopt the plan without addressing their concerns and requiring an EIS “would be to abandon the environmental ethics and principles of scientific wildlife management which are a fundamental part of the Montana ethos.”

Let’s review

On a separate front, Sen. Mike Phillips, D-Bozeman, had requested a legislative audit of all brucellosis prevention efforts undertaken by FWP and the DOL. But he turned in the request too late for it to be considered, he said.

Phillips said he’d like to see an independent analysis of FWP and DOL’s work on the elk-brucellosis issue to see if state funds are being spent wisely. He said the current plan being considered by FWP, where large fences could be constructed seasonally to keep cattle and elk separate, is a “losing proposition” with no end in sight.

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