Yellowstone National Park Considering "Remote Vaccination" For Bison To Stem Brucellosis

How best can Yellowstone's bison be managed for brucellosis? Kurt Repanshek photo.

Ever-present concerns that bison from Yellowstone National Park might spread a deadly disease to Montana cattle has park biologists considering the use of an air-gun-delivered vaccine for the bison.

The move to develop such a "remote vaccine" was called for in the Interagency Bison Management Plan adopted back in 2000. If adopted, the program would be the latest evolution of brucellosis control in the park, though it certainly wouldn't mollify critics of how Montana officials haze bison back into the park, sometimes with helicopters, at various times of the year.

"This remote vaccination program for wild Yellowstone bison makes no sense," says Matt Skogland, a wildlife advocate with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The management focus for an effective vaccine program should be on livestock, not wildlife. We need to let wildlife be wildlife, and we need to manage livestock. That is the most efficient, sensible policy.

"The proposed aggressive management of wildlife inside Yellowstone National Park sets a terrible precedent. Couple that with the fact that the vaccine is not close to 100 percent effective and you have to start scratching your head," Mr. Skogland added during a telephone interview from his Montana office. "And let’s not forget about the tens of thousands of wild elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that also have brucellosis. Again, let’s put our time, money, and resources into vaccinating livestock – and let’s let wildlife be wildlife. That makes the most sense. Going after wild Yellowstone bison with air rifles and a less-than-100 percent-effective vaccine will set us down a wrong and absurd path."

From the state of Montana's viewpoint, though, vaccinating bison is just another step towards ensuring cattle don't get infected with the disease, which can cause spontaneous abortions. The state of Montana currently is one of just two states that carry a "brucellosis-free" tag on their livestock industries. Losing that status can be costly, as it impacts the marketability of Montana cattle and ranchers must pay to test all their cattle for brucellosis.

Dr. Marty Zaluski, the state veternarian for the Montana Department of Livestock, says that so far the disease has not spread from park bison to Montana cattle because of ongoing efforts to keep bison and cattle separated, not because it can't happen. Vaccinating bison against brucellosis is another prophylactic step towards preventing transmission and reducing the prevalence of the disease in the bison, said the veterinarian, who added that reducing the extent of the disease will also help lower ranchers' opposition to a freer-roaming Yellowstone bison herd.

"Ultimately, the disease status of bison I would suggest is the No. 1 stumbling block, the No. 1 roadblock, between greater tolerance for bison in the state of Montana," said Dr. Zaluski. "So, certainly I think we’ve been successful at preventing the disease, but the bison advocates desire to have greater range for bison in the state. And certainly the Yellowstone bison population is one of their, is one of the No. 1 priorities to expand the range for.

"And so from my perspective, the best opportunity for having conflict-free interactions between livestock and bison are ones where there is an aggressive effort to reduce the brucellosis prevalence of the wild bison," the state veterinarian said. "People aren’t happy with the status quo. Nobody’s happy, whether it’s the ranching community or the conservationists, the bison conservationist community."

In Yellowstone, wildlife biologist Rick Wallen agreed that key to gaining more ground for bison beyond the park boundaries is reducing the prevalence of brucellosis, which is present in roughly 50 percent of the park's animals.

"If we’re interested in getting untested bison free-roaming outside the national park, we probably have to do it," Mr. Wallen said of the remote vaccination proposal, "but if we’re comfortable with this park boundary plus a tiny bit of extra space, we don’t really need to move forward if that’s all we’ve got for bison range -- and that might be all we ever get for bison range -- then we probably don’t need to move forward."

While Montana livestock officials are adamant about reducing, if not eliminating, brucellosis in Yellowstone bison, there hasn't been a similar clamor about reducing the disease in the park's elk. Not only are there many more elk in the park than bison, but transmission of brucellosis from elk to livestock has been documented.

Dr. Zaluski said that while there are efforts to address brucellosis in elk and to prevent the spread of the disease from these ungulates, efforts that range from keeping cattle and elk separate during calving seasons and even "strategic hunting," the high-profile debate over bison stems in large part from the efforts of the Buffalo Field Campaign, a non-profit activist group that works to illustrate the adverse treatment inflicted on some bison during hazing.

“Well, one of the reasons is that we have the Buffalo Field Campaign that’s very vocal on the bison issue. Really, I think, to the detriment of a greater understanding of this problem," he said. "And not only that, but bison are so photogenic and people of the United States feel such an attachment of tradition and history to bison that really, bison typically hog, I shouldn’t say hog, but certainly get a lot of the media attention.”

As for Mr. Skogland's contention that the vaccination program should focus entirely on livestock and not involve bison, Dr. Zaluski said ranchers do vaccinate their cattle.

"They not only vaccinate their calves at calvehood, but also a lot of producers now are vaccinating their animals as adults," the veterinarian said. "And I think the suggestion that livestock producers are not vaccinating their cattle is another real important misunderstanding of this problem because certainly it’s been done. But you know, there are very few vaccines -- polio maybe, small pox, and a few others -- that are 100 percent effective. So brucellosis vaccine let’s say is maybe 85 percent, 65 percent effective in cattle. So, that again, it’s such a complex issue because there’s not one silver bullet that address this problem."

Back in Yellowstone, however, Mr. Wallen doesn't entirely share Dr. Zaluski's confidence in the livestock vaccination efforts.

"They haven’t actually pushed very hard to vaccinate cattle at the maximum level that they probably should be vaccinated," the park biologist said. "Most cattle are vaccinated as calves. It’s the rare one that’s not, and we’ve argued that you really need to continue the vaccination program for the duration of the life of the cow.

"It needs to be vaccinated every few years, because they’re not seeing, they're not being exposed to the disease, so you lose acquired immunity over time. So we’re still in a little bit of an arguing battle. The cattlemen aren’t doing everything that they possibly could, and the state regulators aren’t pushing that regulation as far as they could."

Yellowstone officials currently are taking comment, through July, on a draft environmental impact statement that considers a "remote vaccination" program proposed for bison.

The Draft EIS looks at continuing the current hand vaccination program, adding a remote vaccination program for young non-pregnant bison, or an approach which would also include remote vaccination of adult females.

Yellowstone is planning to hold a series of open houses to provide the public an opportunity to learn more about the issue in order to provide comments which will be analyzed and used in preparation of the EIS:

Bozeman, MT: June 14 from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at the Comfort Inn, 1370 North 7th Ave.
Helena, MT: June 15 from 6:00-8:30 pm at the Howard Johnson, 2101 E. 11th Ave.
Malta, MT: June 16 from 6:00-8:30 p.m. at the Great Northern Hotel, S. First St. East.

You can find a copy of the document at this site.

Mr. Wallen notes that park officials have not settled on a preferred alternative.

"We’re really at the very beginning stages," he said. "We didn’t select the preferred alternative, so that tells you we don’t have a clear decision at this point in time."