JACKSON, Wyo. - South of Yellowstone National Park near the Grand Tetons, cattle have grazed "nose-to-nose" with brucellosis-infected bison and elk for more than 75 years. How is it that this herd of nearly 300 bison that roams from Grand Teton National Park to the National Elk Refuge has not been part of the ruckus? Because both ranchers and environmentalists in Jackson Hole agree that no extreme measures are needed.


Instead, they say what works is the voluntary vigilance of local ranchers, who vaccinate their cattle, shoo away bison, and keep their livestock off the open range when elk are calving or migrating back to summer grasslands.


Clifford Hansen, former Wyoming governor and U.S. senator, says concern about brucellosis is largely unfounded.


But the federal agency APHIS is beginning to reach south to this herd, too. Its officials warned Wyoming last year that action had to be taken to retain its coveted brucellosis-free status, vital for shipping cattle out of the state. Agency proposals included testing free-ranging cattle, shooting bison and controlling the movement of elk during the winter.


Both ranchers and conservationists denounced that plan at a public hearing in November, saying it would cause more problems than it would solve. Ranchers like Hansen's grandson, Brad Mead, a Jackson attorney and heir to one of the largest cattle operations in the valley, say they don't want to draw the line against bison or elk because they realize that if it came to a choice between cattle or wildlife on public lands, cattle would probably lose.


Many area ranchers feared a crackdown on public-lands grazing in the wake of a 1991 lawsuit claiming that cattle belonging to a private ranch had been infected by wandering bison or elk from Jackson Hole. The issue was sidestepped when the judge ruled that the infection likely came from cattle.


After the November meeting, community members finally wrote to President Clinton for help. "An unreasonable agenda" was putting Jackson residents into a no-win situation, says Franz Camenzind, a wildlife biologist and director of the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning. "We want to put the ecosystem on the table and tell the government that bison should be treated like every other species of wildlife, given access to public lands, and even hunted if need be, just like elk."


"I can think of no reason at all why these new rules from APHIS make sense," adds Hansen. "To my knowledge, none of us has ever had any problem with brucellosis."


*T.W.