Internal documents obtained by High Country News suggest that APHIS broke scientific protocol by introducing a live, experimental brucellosis vaccine into bison herds at national parks and a national wildlife refuge without the knowledge or consent of the National Park Service or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"I believe this proves that APHIS is a rogue agency out of control," says D.J. Schubert, a biologist with the Fund for Animals in Silver Spring, Md.
After the action was exposed, APHIS admitted that in 1996 it instructed veterinarians in Wind Cave and Badlands national parks in South Dakota and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska to inject the unapproved vaccine, RB51, into bison without notifying park staff.
Not only did APHIS introduce the vaccine to buffalo in those preserves but it also intended to continue the experiment at the National Bison Range in Montana. Development of an effective vaccine goes to the heart of APHIS's strategy to eventually eradicate the disease.
To date, ranchers in the Yellowstone region have used a vaccine known as Strain 19 with good results in cattle; however, it is not 100 percent effective. While APHIS has touted its new vaccine, RB51, as a more reliable replacement with applications to wildlife, the product has not gained approval for use in bison or elk.
By forging ahead with RB51, APHIS was not only behaving unethically, says the Fund for Animals' Schubert, it was releasing an exotic bacteria into an environment with "absolutely no clue what it is going to do."
Schubert says APHIS had ample opportunity to state its intentions at an Aug. 22 meeting of the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee, but agency officials failed to mention them to two other federal agencies present, the Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The incident shocked federal wildlife officials. APHIS representatives had said they would not introduce brucellosis vaccines into the bison of the Yellowstone region until a "safe and efficacious' product had been developed.
Two regional directors of the National Park Service were so upset they wrote an angry letter to Terry Medley, the head of APHIS in Washington: "We would like to continue working with APHIS on the very important issue of brucellosis management but cannot continue to work with Dr. (Mike) Gilsdorf. Dr. Gilsdorf's actions ... are at least professionally and ethically remiss."
"It was a matter of miscommunication, that's what I believe," APHIS veterinarian Gilsdorf said in a telephone interview. "We thought everyone was notified, but we were wrong. We had the protocol reviewed by a peer-review group. I know some people have criticized the protocol as being poor and I would agree, it was. All we were trying to do was gather more data based on how safe it was. We already used it in cattle calves and that work showed it was safe."
Writing in defense of APHIS, Montana Department of Livestock Executive Officer Larry Petersen downplayed the incidents and accused the U.S. Department of Interior of using live vaccines in wolves, ferrets and other species without protecting against exposure to other animals.
Schubert responds: "I'm not suggesting that the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have never made mistakes with their vaccines. But APHIS made a significant blunder, and the state of Montana is trying to cover up for them. The irony is that for an agency so worried about the spread of brucellosis, they seem awfully sloppy and surprisingly flexible with a potentially harmful organism."