Should Yellowstone National Park's Elk Herds Be Culled to Fight Brucellosis?

Should elk herds in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, such as these on the National Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyoming, be culled to combat brucellosis? NPS photo.

Are Yellowstone National Park's elk as charismatic as the park's bison? In other words, will there be a public outcry if concern over brucellosis-infected Yellowstone elk leads to a culling of the park's elk herds?

During the winter months Yellowstone bison draw the public's attention as Montana and Yellowstone officials, in an effort to control the spread of brucellosis, either kill by hunting or ship off to slaughter thousands of bison. During the past two decades an estimated 6,000+ bison were dispatched in one manner or another to control the disease, which can cause the spontaneous abortion of livestock fetuses.

So high-profile are Yellowstone bison that earlier this year a coalition of environmental and conservation groups hammered out an agreement worth nearly $3 million to buy additional grazing rights just north of the park for bison. That deal won't be triggered until the funding is lined up. In the meantime, some Montana ranchers are complaining about the region's elk, some of which also carry brucellosis.

"We've got way too many elk," John Scully, a rancher living in Montana's Madison Valley, told The Associated Press. "Clearly with so many elk, the risk rises. We need to reduce their numbers."

How might a culling operation be devised? According to the AP story, there are roughly 95,000 elk in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which touches parts of Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, and biologists say only a small percentage are infected with the disease. Through the year those elk move back and forth, crossing private lands, national parks, and national parks. Would culling efforts be targeted on elk leaving the park, or on herds that spend the bulk of their time in national forests? How would officials know whether they were killing infected, and not healthy, elk?

How might outfitters and hunters react to a culling proposal? What about the general public, which seems to treasure Yellowstone's bison; will they also rise up in opposition to culling the park's elk? With nearly 100,000 elk roaming the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, the thinking here is that it'd take an awfully large culling operation for the public to become concerned.

That said, the state and federal governments have exhibited a poor record in their efforts to battle brucellosis. Earlier this year the Government Accountability Office, in a biting report, said the collaborative Interagency Bison Management Plan has been a failure on numerous fronts and the involved agencies need to develop a better solution. How might they do in developing a brucellosis plan for elk?

It was back in 2000 that the state of Montana, the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service agreed to the Interagency Bison Management Plan. The goal was to come up with a way to prevent Yellowstone bison from spreading brucellosis to cattle beyond the park's borders. (There has, however, been no documented case of such a transmission, although there have been suspected transmissions from elk to livestock.)

But according to the GAO, not only are the agencies -- which have spent a combined $16 million on their work in this arena -- far behind the schedule they adopted eight years ago, they have been, in a word, dysfunctional.

Too, the GAO investigators noted that the management plan was just that -- a management plan, not an eradication plan. "Multiple recent suspected transmissions of brucellosis from elk to cattle in the area have highlighted the importance of addressing this disease in its broader wildlife and ecological context, and doing so could have significant implications for the future management of Yellowstone bison," the report said.


For years, buffalo advocates have been called paranoid for suggesting that the livestock industry would go after elk next. They have already started in Wyoming this past year with a test and slaughter program. Now, they are suggesting it for the entire region. Outfitters have been claiming - at least a number of them have been - that wolves have been decimating the elk herds. Are outfitters now going to speak out against the assault on wildlife (elk and buffalo) by the livestock industry?

A few signs point to yes. Buffalo Allies of Bozeman held a forum the previous Monday on ways that people in the Gallatin Valley could advocate on behalf of Yellowstone buffalo. While the original intention of the meeting was to draw new people in who wanted to take action, what actually happened was that a wide spectrum of some of the same old people showed up instead. At the meeting were representatives from the state legislature, members from professional environmental groups like Greater Yellowstone Coalition and Defenders of Wildlife, grassroots groups like Gallatin Wildlife Association, Bear Creek Council, and Horse Butte Neighbors of Buffalo, as well as hunting interest groups - like the Safari Club. I would never have guessed the Safari Club would have sent a representative to a buffalo advocacy meeting, but it has happened. However, other groups representing outfitters and hunters have not gotten on board, yet. Will they now that the livestock industry first through a press release of the U.S. Cattlemen Association and now this are going after the precious elk industry both at a state and a federal level?

As a wildlife advocate, I do not support the slaughter or testing of either wild elk or wild buffalo or any other species carrying brucellosis. However, one of the weaker arguments of our position is being called out by the livestock industry - namely, why aren't elk treated with an equal footing as buffalo? Now, there is a proposal by the livestock industry to treat them the same. The position, however, is the same. Brucellosis is not a reason to stop the movement of wildlife; it's not a reason to give preferential treatment to the livestock industry on public lands; it's not a reason to put the onus on prevention of brucellosis on wildlife control rather than on taking measure to protect cattle. Now that a broader cross section of wildlife is under attack, will there be an uncomfortable alliance between environmentalists and outfitters - groups who have warred so long over wolves?

Although we should be frank about our differences, we should be willing to work together where our interests converge. Many wildlife advocates are also hunters. Can the two sides form enough of a coalition to stop what's being called for by this industry even as they continue to war on other issues? That is something that I am willing to work for so long as one group does not co-opt the positions of the other and remain frank about their differences. In fact, it could be an opportunity for a robust dialogue by groups that don't typically get along and perhaps can lead to greater understanding of what's at stake in Greater Yellowstone.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

First it was the Wolves, then the Buffalo, now it's the Elk. What's it going to be next...mule deer? Hummingbirds? NO documented cases of Bison transmitted disease. "Suspected" cases of Elk transmitted disease. When is someone going to put their collective foot down and end this purely political/greed motivated witch-hunt by the cattle industry? I was unaware the outfitters were up in arms about the wolves-I guess they aren't able to fill those COW and CALF permits as easily any more huh?
Ok, done ranting.

The collective foot takes organizing and the hard work that goes with that. That someone is us. So, if people are in this region (Greater Yellowstone) - not currently involved or we are not currently involved with you - we need you. If you are away from this area, there is need for a whole host of tasks - not just with buffalo advocacy but with other groups. Our group - Buffalo Allies of Bozeman has created a page particularly catered to how people can help.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Wait a minute! I'm confused. I thought that Yellowstone's elk had been wiped out by the wolves. Herds decimated. That's what I've been reading on blog after blog, comment after comment.
This proposal is insane. And when the elk herds REALLY HAVE BEEN DECIMATED, through "culling", what do these ranchers think that wolves, bears and other predators are going to eat? Their cows maybe? Then the call will come out to "cull" the wolves, bears, mountain lions, coyotes etc. In other words, what is being proposed, is the virtual destruction of the Yellowstone ecosystem. The end of Yellowstone National Park as the last great intact wildlife sanctuary in the lower forty eight. The end of the millions of dollars injected into the local economy annually by wildlife watchers, photographers and hunters. The end of countless businesses that rely on them. Let's face it, with gas pushing $5.00 a gallon, not very many people are going to drive hundreds or thousands of miles just to see Old Faithful; and they sure as heck aren't going to drive those miles to see cattle. Nor are they going to drive those many miles (for the majority of Americans Yellowstone is a bit out of the way) for poor to average wildlife viewing or hunting opportunities. They come here for FANTASTIC opportunities that are unavailable anywhere else in the lower forty eight. It's time that the states of Montana, Wyoming (especially) and Idaho recognize what a cash cow (sorry!) that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is, and how comparatively unimportant the relatively few ranchers in the area are. Split state status, the development of a viable vaccine for cattle, or the recognition that brucellosis is no longer a human health issue. The answer is there. Not in the slaughtering of thousands of animals, and the destruction of the last intact temperate ecosystem in the lower forty eight as well as the economies of three states. That's kind of like dropping an atomic bomb to destroy an ant hill!

The basis of the push by the livestock industry to begin culling Yellowstone elk, that elk caused the brucellosis incidents in Montana over the last year that cost Montana its brucellosis free status, is false. There is no evidence whatsoever that elk caused these incidents, and good circumstantial to lay the blame on cattle.

I have addressed this issue in depth at this site.

Also, to correct something Jim Macdonald said above, Wyoming has completed its third year of elk test and slaughter on the feedgrounds used by the Pinedale Elk Herd.

Thanks for the correction, Robert. And, as always, great work. I know you have had a very positive and thoughtful influence on my own activism.

Jim Macdonald
The Magic of Yellowstone
Yellowstone Newspaper
Jim's Eclectic World

Interesting letter to the editor from a very good group who seems to share my beliefs concerning wildlife and wilderness.