Few recent national park wildlife management issues have been more contentious than those involving bison and brucellosis concerns by ranchers near Yellowstone National Park. Now those same concerns have prompted new proposals by Montana officials for managing elk populations in the Greater Yellowstone Area, with options including reducing numbers of both elk and wolves.
The problem involves seemingly intractable conflicts between ranching and wildlife in the Yellowstone region, and there's a lot at stake. Livestock growers fear loss of income from the possible spread of brucellosis from elk and bison to cattle. Wildlife advocates decry actions such as hazing and killing of wildlife that migrate into livestock grazing areas.
The Brucellosis Problem
Brucellosis is a disease that primarily affects cattle, bison, and swine, and is also found in wild populations of elk and bison in the greater Yellowstone region. Humans can also be infected, although cases are rare in this country, thanks to an aggressive control program by federal and state agencies and livestock producers.
Controversy has swirled in recent years around bison migrating out of Yellowstone National Park onto land valued by ranchers for grazing. Solutions have included "hazing" the bison back into the park, creating holding areas for bison outside the park, and shooting some of the animals. The problem is complicated by bans on relocating "excess" wildlife from areas where brucellosis exists.
Wildlife Migrations Contribute to Brucellosis Concerns
Similar issues involving elk, another potential carrier of the disease, are now coming to the forefront. As noted on the park website, "When Congress set Yellowstone's boundaries in 1872 ...little thought was given to the migratory habits of its wildlife, about which little was known. The park's higher elevations provide summer range for an estimated 40,000 hoofed grazing animals (ungulates)—elk, bison, pronghorn, deer, bighorn sheep, and moose. Each year the accumulating snow of winter spurs them to lower grassland areas that are warmer and drier, where there is more open range."
"Yellowstone’s largest herd of elk winter on the northern range, which covers 540 square miles along the Lamar and Yellowstone river basins, overlapping the boundary between Wyoming and Montana. A third of this area is on public and private lands north of the park."
That annual migration of elk and bison in and out of the park is one key element in the current troubles. Ironically, as noted in a report from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, the brucellosis wildlife-livestock problem has now come full circle—from livestock to wildlife and now back to livestock—in the past century:
"Within the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA), brucellosis ... is known to exist in wild bison and elk and occasionally livestock. Brucellosis was first detected in wildlife in the early 1900’s and likely introduced into wildlife populations by contact with infected livestock. Eradication efforts have largely eliminated brucellosis in livestock within the contiguous United States leaving wildlife in the GYA as the last know brucellosis reservoir in the U.S. Recent livestock cases in the GYA have been linked to transmission from wildlife, with elk being the most likely source."
Montana Citizens Working Group Offers Recommendations
In an effort to seek wider support for a plan to manage this problem, the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission established a "citizen working group" to develop "Elk Management Guidelines in Areas with Brucellosis." The group presented its recommendations to the Commission earlier this month, and the document is open for public comment through December 20.
The working group's report noted, "Eradication of brucellosis in elk is not currently feasible; management tools need to be endorsed by the FWP Commission that will reduce and if possible eventually eliminate the risk of transmission between elk and livestock, in a manner that considers the interests of livestock owners, landowners, wildlife enthusiasts, recreationists and hunting groups."
Are New Proposals for Elk More of the Same?
The proposed solutions to the elk-brucellosis problem have a familiar ring to anyone who has followed the previous controversy with bison management. However, in fairness to members of the working group, this is an issue with no easy fixes or new answers to old questions.
The group's recommendations—which won't be acted upon by the Commission until after the current public comment period—are general rather than specific, and are not presumed to cover all possible options. The action alternatives include:
• Changes in hunting seasons and regulations to reduce winter herd size and density for elk;
• Manipulation of habitat (including plantings to entice and hold elk in certain areas, rest and rotation of grazing areas, and development of water sources) to promote separation of elk and livestock during critical brucellosis risk periods;
• Expanded research and education;
• Containment of elk, including use of elk-proof fencing for high-risk areas, more intensive hazing of elk in high-risk areas, expanded use of wildlife management areas for purposes of spatial separation of elk and livestock, and—perhaps most controversial—reduction in wolf/pack numbers.
The Wolf Factor
That final item—a brief mention of possible reductions in the number of wolves in the region—includes what some may view as a bit of a contradiction.
In recent years some hunters have claimed that the elk population in states such as Montana and Wyoming has declined as a direct result of wolf reintroduction programs. This latest report, however, suggests that elk numbers and density are too high in at least parts of Montana... so one proposed solution is to reduce the number of both elk and wolves.
The rationale for reducing the number of wolves through annual adjustments in the hunting season may be based on the belief that the presence of wolves causes elk to migrate into locations that bring them into closer contact with livestock.
It will be interesting to see how this issue plays out in coming months—and years.
Public Comment Period is Now Open
You can view the working group's recommendations by clicking on the "Interested Persons Letter" link on this webpage. That site also includes the opportunity to submit on-line comments about the recommendations. Written comments can be mailed to "FWP – Wildlife Bureau, Attn: Public Comment, P. O. Box 200701, Helena, MT 59620-0701. All comments must be received by 5:00 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on December 20, 2012.
Finally, lest there be any confusion, these state recommendations apply to areas in Montana near and adjacent to Yellowstone National Park, but not to the park itself.