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