A desperate move to protect cattle ranchers

by Brodie Farquhar

Wyoming’s plan to kill suspect elk could become a ‘political disaster’


Donald "Doc" Jensen, a third-generation rancher southeast of Pinedale, Wyo., and his wife, Marilyn, took a terrible hit in 2003.

Regular spot-testing for brucellosis — a disease that causes cattle, elk and bison to abort calves — revealed that a few of the Jensens’ Herefords were infected. To prevent the spread of the disease, the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service ordered that all 331 of their cattle be sent to a slaughterhouse.

Now, the state of Wyoming wants to slaughter wild elk, and Doc Jensen says it’s "a damn good thing," because the elk probably infected his cows.

Wyoming’s cattle industry as a whole shares Jensen’s opinion. Elk have been blamed for the infection, and destruction, of four other ranchers’ herds around northwest Wyoming since 2003. The federal government paid market value for the lost herds, but the ranchers’ operations were disrupted and they lost bloodlines they’d built up for decades.

It’s become a statewide cattle crisis, costing millions of dollars per year. To reassure cattle buyers, the state now requires 300,000 head to be tested for the disease each year — up more than 600 percent since 2003.

And within a few weeks, the Wyoming Department of Game and Fish plans to begin a lethal pilot project aimed at reducing the disease in the state’s famous elk herds.

Elk feedgrounds targeted

Game and Fish has its aim set on northwest Wyoming’s 23 feedgrounds, where it and federal agencies supply hay to 25,000 wild elk during the winter. That feeding protects ranchers’ grass while keeping elk abundant for hunters. The crowding encourages the spread of disease; brucellosis is rarely detected in free-ranging elk but common among feedgrounds elk (HCN, 4/29/02: Are Wyoming's feedgrounds a hotbed of disease?).

State wildlife agents plan to begin with the 400 to 600 elk that winter at the Muddy Creek feedground, next to the Jensens’ ranch. They’ll place a trail of hay to lure the elk into a new corral, and then they’ll test each adult female elk for brucellosis, because adult females are most likely to spread the disease, via aborted fetal tissue. Any that test positive will be hauled to an Idaho slaughterhouse. The rest of the elk will be released.

The Muddy Creek experiment is set to last five years, and officials estimate that 60 to 100 elk will be slaughtered in the first year alone. If the killing is deemed successful in reducing the incidence of brucellosis, it will be expanded to the state’s other feedgrounds.

The proposed elk slaughter has caused rifts within the ranks of scientists, conservationists and other interests. The Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Team, whose members include veterinarians, ranchers and hunters, approved the plan by a narrow margin. The Wyoming Wildlife Federation also supports it, pointing to a similar effort in Idaho that reduced brucellosis in feedground elk. But many critics say it is doomed to failure. "It is a lousy way to manage an elk herd," says Barry Reiswig, manager of the National Elk Refuge, a federal feedground near Jackson. If even a few infected elk escape the roundup, he says, they’ll wipe out any benefits gained.

"Revenge killing"

Some groups, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council, have long called for the feedgrounds to be shut down, and the test-and-slaughter plan has only increased their fervor. They want to return to a less intrusive style of elk management.

They also say that if the selective slaughter allows the feedgrounds to keep operating, that could spread chronic wasting disease, a fatal brain malady that is far more dangerous to wildlife than brucellosis is (HCN, 2/16/04: Solving the puzzle of chronic wasting disease: Veterinarian Beth Williams). Fears of that disease increased this fall, when it was discovered in seven deer around Thermopolis. If it reaches the feedgrounds, it would cause an epidemic, killing all the animals it infects, says Robert Hoskins, president of the Dubois Wildlife Association.

Ken Mills, a University of Wyoming veterinary science professor, agrees that the feed-grounds should be closed. At the same time, he thinks the test-and-slaughter effort should be even more aggressive. Anything less, he says, and Wyoming will have a never-ending supply of brucellosis-infected animals.

Rob Shaul, publisher of the Pinedale Roundup, a weekly newspaper, warns that the test-and-slaughter will be "a political disaster. It could be seen by the general public, and especially by many hunters, as a revenge killing by ranchers. And people will see Wyoming Game and Fish killing elk that look perfectly healthy."

The effort highlights "ranchers’ control over the political processes and the Game and Fish departments across the West," says Jon Marvel, head of Idaho-based Western Watersheds Project, a group that often battles the industry over environmental issues. "Any wildlife that interferes in any way with ranching, from prairie dogs to predators, is killed, to avoid any economic impact on ranchers."

Two years after the government slaughtered the Jensens’ cattle, the couple continues to suffer financially. They’re buying and breeding a new cattle herd, but because they lost all their heifers in 2003, they have no yearling calves to sell this year. That’s a loss of about $100,000, Marilyn Jensen says.

"It’s going to take years to build our herd back up," she says. "We’re not against the elk or the hunters. We had to get rid of our diseased cattle, so they should get rid of their diseased elk."

But even Doc Jensen doesn’t think the effort will eradicate brucellosis from the local elk herd. "It’ll knock a hell of a hole in it," he says, and that’s a start.

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