Each winter as many as 10,000 elk migrate down from the deep snows of Yellowstone National Park and surrounding lands (HCN, 9/15/97). They spend the winter on the National Elk Refuge just outside the resort town of Jackson, where they delight tourists who watch them eat hay thrown from horse-drawn sleighs.
While the concentration of thousands of wild animals inspires awe, it is also dangerous, say state officials. They contend the refuge is a breeding ground for brucellosis, a disease which can cause domestic cattle, if infected, to abort their calves. It has been virtually wiped out in this country, except in the Yellowstone ecosystem.
To protect the state's brucellosis-free status, Wyoming wildlife officials want to vaccinate elk calves with a vaccine known as Strain 19, but they've been blocked by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The federal agency, which manages the refuge, maintains that the vaccine has not been proven either effective or safe.
Last month, the state filed a motion in federal court asking for the right to vaccinate the elk while they are on the refuge.
"I am convinced we are no closer to resolution of the brucellosis problem with the different agencies of the federal government than we were 10 years ago," complained Wyoming's Gov. Jim Geringer.
As the battle is waged in court, the snow is already starting to melt. Wildlife officials admit that time is running out. By the end of March, most of the elk will have left the refuge for the year.
* Tom Reed