FWP considers brucellosis management options from elk working group

State wildlife officials are working on ways to reduce the spread of the disease brucellosis through different management of elk. Wild elk carry the blood-borne disease and can spread it to livestock. It can cause pregnant cows to abort their calves and can have a serious negative impact on an area’s livestock industry if infections are confirmed.

A new proposal from a citizen working group seeks to alter some elk hunting season rules and redistribute the state’s population

Department of Livestock Veterinarian Marty Zaluski spoke to the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission about his agency’s work on brucellosis during its Thursday meeting.

“The goal of Montana’s brucellosis program is to certainly find but prevent disease in Livestock and make sure those cattle remain marketable and so far we’ve been highly successful,” Zaluski said.

The state Board of Livestock established a surveillance zone around the Greater Yellowstone Area to monitor brucellosis a couple of years ago, increasing cattle testing and vaccination efforts. But brucellosis in that area’s elk population appears to be on the rise in the past 10 or 15 years. So the FWP established a citizen elk working group to try tackle the issue of how to best lower the brucellosis risk for cattle.

“This process was very difficult for a lot of us,” said Working Group member and Twin Bridges livestock producer Ray Marxer, because there are so many different competing interests. Sportsmen and wildlife enthusiasts care about the elk, so the group didn’t want to suggest getting rid of all the elk from a high risk area.

The working group brought the FWP commissioners a long list of recommendations. These include putting late season hunts in place, so hunters would hopefully kill infected cow elk before they abort their calves. Cattle can get infected from eating the afterbirth of these abortions. The group also suggests using management hunts to take more elk and manipulating certain landscapes or vegetation to drive elk to certain wildlife management areas or other public lands away from livestock. Providing public funding for fencing in cattle feeding areas was brought up too, among other recommendations.

One problem the elk working group has been struggling to solve is landowners harboring elk on their property, say for better hunting opportunities. Elk clustering in an area increases disease transmission.

Again, group member Ray Marxer.

“Harboring is a tough issue,” Marxer said. “It’s a tough issue for all of us, not only for the standpoint of wildlife and hunters access, but also from the standpoint of private property rights.”

FWP commissioner Ron Moody suggests a way to start addressing that problem should come from neighbors before the state.

“The state, in any of its capacities, whether it’s Fish, Wildlife and Parks or anything else, if they come in and say that to a private landowner the cowboy code kicks in and the answer is no. But perhaps a local working group speaking as the heart and voice of the local community could make that landowner feel like ‘Well, it’s ok if I say yes to these people.'”

The Fish Wildlife and Parks Commission will continue examining the working group’s recommendations in the coming months.

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