Toxic bison

  Updated March 11, 2008

With bison populations in Yellowstone National Park estimated at a near-record 4,700 animals this snowy winter, buffalo have begun pushing out of the park in earnest, and the usual winter shout-fest is underway. Fine, but the real problem posed by Yellowstone’s brucellosis infection, and the park’s refusal to realistically deal with it, isn’t bison. It’s elk.

In 1951, the states and livestock producers joined with the federal government’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to eradicate brucellosis. In 1957, over 124,000 livestock herds were still known to be infected. By the end of 2001, the cooperative effort had paid off, and APHIS reported that “the number of known brucellosis-infected cattle and bison herds in the United States has been reduced to one …”

Canada has been brucellosis-free since 1985, and stopped testing in 1999. In early February of this year, Texas became the last state to share “Class Free” status with the rest of the nation. You might say after 56 years that the war against brucellosis was over -- except for that one holdout herd the government’s inspection service noted in 2001. What herd is that? Yellowstone’s bison, currently about 50 percent infected, according to APHIS. Brucellosis persists in Yellowstone mainly because of the Park Service’s “natural management” policy, which is ironic since brucellosis is not a disease native to America, but to the eastern Mediterranean.

Bison aside, however, between 1 and 9 percent of elk in Yellowstone are also infected with brucellosis, with the Firehole herd being the most toxic. Does that matter? Yes, because in the Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Yellowstone region, none of the cattle herds that were infected since 2001 with brucellosis, and then slaughtered, were known to have any contact with bison. But they had plenty of contact with infected elk.

Conservation biologists have waxed rhapsodic about the cascade of changes triggered by wolf reintroduction -- changes not only in vegetation, but also in elk density and feeding habits. Elk are much more vulnerable to wolves than bison. Some are killed by wolves, of course, which upsets many sportsmen. How the survivors have responded to wolves sniffing at their heels and the high numbers of bison competing for browse is probably far more important.

Many Yellowstone elk have simply left the park. The question is: How many of these elk are infected, and where are they now? Nobody seems to know. To their credit, the states of Wyoming and Idaho have grasped the seriousness of the risk and are addressing regional elk infections. They test and cull infected animals at their state-run feed grounds, plus hunters take blood samples of their kills for testing.

Much is at stake, and not just for livestock producers and hunters, but all citizens. Elk today mix routinely with livestock everywhere in the West. Elk-induced infection and destruction of cattle herds could end all that in a heartbeat. Ranchers will not tolerate elk any more if doing so means risking herd slaughter. Once that happens, hunters are out of luck. Ranchers busted by a slaughter order will be driven to subdivide or sell to trophy-ranch buyers, few of whom are interested in allowing “regular-guy” hunters on their ground. The damage to our shared economy would be vast, and permanent. Major chunks of our common agricultural and sporting heritage would be lost forever, by everyone.

The petty bureaucratic intransigence of the National Park Service’s leadership and staff, combined with histrionics from “bison activists,” has left the grownups with one heck of a mess. Yellowstone’s high bison infection rate in bison has spilled over into much-more-mobile elk populations, which routinely travel far from Yellowstone Park. That in turn means that final eradication of this terrible, exotic disease will cost far more and take much longer to accomplish than it should have.

Yet it must be done. It’s time for us all, especially our elected leaders, to act like adults. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer need to crank up the heat on the Park Service to get its toxic house in order, and keep the pot boiling until brucellosis is whipped.

Dave Skinner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He lives in Whitefish, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at

Mar 05, 2008 07:08 PM

I agree with what Dave has said in this article. In the 60's the individual who managed Yellowstone at the time wrote an article which in part stated "If I could maintain a herd of Bison in the range of 300 to 400 head that would be optimum for the conditions and the variety of animals". Now the Park service has finnally admitted they "think" they have 4700 head? You and I both know what happens to a "pasture" which can mantain 400 head when you place 4000 head onto it, it is over grazed and the population of animals goes else where for forage.

Back when the Park Service used a common sense approach to managing the park the variety of wildlife was aboundant. Now with these "90 day wonders" for the East, it's no wonder there is such confusion and the lack of cooperation with other agency's both State and Federal.

The Federal Government has mandated restrictions on States and individuals because of Brucellosis why can't they do the same to another Federal Agency when they allow their animals to travel across State lines with out a negative brucellosis test.

Mar 05, 2008 07:17 PM

How in the world do you suppose we should eradicate brucellosis from Yellowstone wildlife Dave?  It can't be done PERIOD.  It is now part of the Yellowstone ecosystem and will remain present there.  Should we condone the roundup of every buffalo, elk, and all other wildlife that carries the disease in the nation's first National Park?  Or should we have ranchers manage their cattle and change the rules so that APHIS doesn't require that entire herds of infected cattle be destroyed?  

Think about this, the Park Service and Montana Department of Livestock have destroyed thousands of buffalo.  Where does the meat go?  It is given to food banks and "native American groups" (notice I didn't say tribes).  If brucellosis is such a horrendous disease then why can you eat the meat?  The only way that a human can contract brucellosis, or undulant fever as it is called in humans, is to drink unpasteurized, infected milk or to ingest or have contact with infected reproductive organs over an open wound.  Does anyone drink unpasteurized milk, rub themselves with infected meat or eat uncooked meat anymore?  This is not a serious disease and is used as a political cudgel to control wildlife and public lands.  

There is no reason to destroy someone's entire herd because of brucellosis and there is no reason to use the destructive techniques you appear to advocate on our last native population of bison or any of our wildlife.  

There are ways to manage livestock and less intrusive ways to reduce the prevalence of brucellosis in wildlife than with test and slaughter (which was tried with bison in the Park years ago and didn't work).  First, close down the silly disease spreading elk feeding grounds in Wyoming. Second, work diligently on finding an effective vaccine for CATTLE.  Third, vaccinate and manage cattle so that breeding animals aren't in areas of risk.  Fourth, implement the split state idea where cattle in areas of risk are managed and tested so that the entire state of Montana doesn't lose its class free status.  Fifth, change the APHIS rules dictating that entire herds of cattle are killed.

Brucellosis is here.  Live with it. 

Mar 07, 2008 11:33 AM

Just another round of blather from the good ol' elk huntin' boys. Grow up dude, your girl friend has long since being impressed by your manly efforts to bring home the bacon.
Mar 08, 2008 01:59 PM

High numbers of bison?  Has the author ever heard of genetic variability and minimum viable population size?

Wolves sniffing at the heals of elk?  The author seems to suggest there's something unusual or unnatural about that.  What's the fear there, that it makes it harder for him to kill elk?   

He appears to feel that he can't compete in healthy ecosystems and would like to see our natural heritage, right down to our National Parks, managed (paid for by the rest of us) for the sole support of easy hunting because the promise of success is expensive where it can be better guaranteed.

I see nothing but ignorance, arrogance and selfishness here.       



Mar 10, 2008 11:24 AM

The previous commenter may see "nothing but ignorance, arrogance, and selfishness here" and I see those things; but, I see more.  I see inconsistent, hypocritical, duplicitous double-talk.  The writer feigns to one side by condemning  the bangs in the elk herds, which wolves should serve to limit by reducing the concentration of elk within the park; then he slides to the other side to bash the impact of the wolves on the elk; then he spins back over to bash the NPS for not eliminating bangs, which would require doing what the wolves are doing.  The truth is that bangs will always be re-infesting different states on the basis of wildlife movements, regardless of how aggressively the NPS attacks the Yellowstone situation.  This article is pure twisting and spin and, given the background of the writer, I also believe that HCN should be ashamed of itself for publishing this kind of stuff.  Why not just start a regular Rio Tinto column?

Mar 11, 2008 01:17 PM

I pointed out to Mr. Skinner over on New West that Monatana DOES have an active brucellosis testing program; evidently, this WOTR column was already in the hopper and couldn't be corrected?

Anyway, you'll need to issue a correction.  Contact Montana FWP in Bozeman and they will tell you that FWP has had an active brucellosis surveillance program for quite some time.  Any hunting store, and many trailheads, have red boxes full of testing kits and mailers so that successful hunters can submit a blood sample from the cow elk they've killed.

Mr. Skinner, who is in northwest Montana, can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing about this program. If he's going to work as a journalist, though, he needs to remember to at least call all the relevant agencies and try to find out the truth.

A little more research and fact checking would have turned up articles about a detected increase in elk brucellosis rates in the Madison Range in 2005.  FWP held a big public meeting in Ennis about it.  More intensive sampling followed, and researchers found a lower rate.  The higher rate was likely due to poor-quality samples being sent in by hunters.

A quick Google search on "brucellosis elk 2005 montana" reveals this information.

Mr. Skinner made similar factual errors in a recent Range magazine article.  I can't recall ever seeing Range issue corrections on any substantive matter.  I do expect a higher commitment to integrity from HCN.

Mar 11, 2008 02:51 PM

All right, SAP, I made a mistake. I admit I haven't committed Montana hunting regulations to memory. Doing so would mean unlearning all the annual changes and having a schizophrenic fit every opening day. But that doesn't change the central reality, that elk, their infections, and their de-facto greater mobility combine to impose a greater risk of cattle infection than do bison. That much is obvious to even us imperfect ones. Perhaps you should reconsider your perfection?

And yes, I DO support roundups of both bison and elk, over a sufficient period of time that the standing infection rate reduces the likelihood of transmittal to practical zero. We have the technology, I just wish we had the will to be smart enough to use it.

--Dave Skinner 

Mar 11, 2008 04:37 PM

The premise of Mr. Skinners article is correct in that it is the elk that are spreading brucellosis.  However, it is the bison that provide the reservoir, and is the only place that some control of the disease can occur. 

Mr. Skinner was a little awkward in making the point, but wolves are involved in the spread of the brucellosis.  Since the reintroduction of wolves elk have signiicantly changed their habbits.  Many elk have learned to stay closer to livestock.  Where once they calved in the back country they are now setting up their maternity wards with the cows.  Not that I blame the elk for not wanting to be eaten.  Here is the problem, brucellosis is spread through contact with infected fetus, placentas, blood, and other gooy stuff assosiated with birthing and reproduction.  So infected elk calving with cattle is a very bad idea.  Oh and for the record one of the reasons that brucellosis is such a big deal is that can easly be tranfered to humans through contact with fresh blood or under pasturized milk.  In humans it is call Ungulant Fever.  Meat processors, and hunters are most at risk.

Now for the bison, the big issue here is that Yellowstone Park is dong a very poor job of managing.  There is range capacity for a fraction of the bison currenly living there.  If livestock producers managed their lands like the park service they would have gone broke and been jailed for animal abuse.  Simply maintaining the population at a rate that can be sustained would be a huge step.  There is also a far greater potensial to develop and adminstire a vaccination program for bison.

To the we are going to save the west from the westerners crowd.  The road that brought you here goes both ways.  The west is the way it is because of the livestock, the hunters, the loggers etc. a person would be considered wise to learn that before they shoot their mouths off.  The cattle industry is the big boy on the economic block and elk hunting is on par with religon.  I strongly suggest that one be very carefull when uttering disperaging words about either when in small town establishments serving adult beverages.


Terry Murphy

Mar 11, 2008 04:46 PM

Dave - I'm far from perfect, and never claimed to be.  But if you're going to be a "knowledge worker " (the new egg-head term for what you do) it seems like Google is a pretty easy tool to rely on.

 And like I said, you're up there in NW MT, so I'm willing to cut you some slack.  But the red boxes are pretty common knowledge down in this part of the state.

Sorry to be so strident about this, but you know how it goes with the media -- your statements in WOTR and Range are now all over the globe, and any correction of misinformation will appear . . . where?  In the comment sections of two websites?  

I guess I'm just not sanguine about the practicality of doing massive roundups of wild elk.  While you're talking to FWP about brucellosis sampling, be sure to visit with Ken Hamlin, Fred King, and many others who HAVE worked on elk roundups on winter range before.  I don't know their opinions on the practicality of large scale roundups, so it would be interesting to have you interview them. 

Like we discussed over at New West, APHIS seems to have punted on feral hogs and brucellosis.  Maybe if we shut down the disease reservoir feedgrounds in Wyoming, we could keep elk brucellosis so low that APHIS would punt on elk, too.

Mar 12, 2008 10:04 AM

UNDULANT fever, not ungulant.  I know someone who has it.

You could also get UNDULANT fever from a wild pig.  Check out this publication from APHIS, and then tell me about how Yellowstone is the final battleground for brucellosis:

The publication came out in October 2005.

It states that "Swine brucellosis has been reported in wild pig populations in at least 14 States . . . Cattle can also become infected . . ."

Mar 13, 2008 11:09 AM

Bison are a herd animal, thus not terribly hard to roundup ( granted it takes some planning and work).

Any outlier individuals who escape the roundup, shoot em test em and butcher em. Give the meat to someone who needs it.

Say there are outlier small groups not handy to roundup, shoot em.  Repopulate those small areas with selecteds hauled in off the main herd.

Round the whole deal up once a year for 4 years. Easiest way might be in the winter, just bait em in a bunch at a time with hay, work those, tag em, and the next day bait in another bunch. 

Test em and tag em.  The hot ones come off.  On the rest, perhaps adult vac the negative adults and for sure calfhood vac the hiefer calves.

Getting rid of bangs just takes work.


Apr 09, 2008 05:40 PM

If Mr. Skinner is going to use the argument that because brucellosis is a non-native virus to Yellowstone and North America as a reason for wholesale culling of elk and bison in the name of saving cattle, and the more specious claim of saving Western economies and stopping the trophy-ranch sell-offs. One could argue that to get to the crux of the matter we should eradicate all non-native grazing species that forage in and around the Greater Yellowstone Area. Oh...wait that would mean getting rid of ranching. Imagine one of the only wild herds of bison being able to roam a little more freely than simply being "managed" for posterity's sake and reduce the risk to cattle ranchers. I find it quite ironic that Mr. Skinner, who professes to be a lover of hunting (or at least we assume he is) that he blames wild game for the harm brucellosis has caused to domesticated cattle when brucellosis was originally brought to America by domesticated animals.

A reasonable solution would be to provide a large enough buffer area around grazing grounds for Bison that are off limits to cattle during winter when Bison are most likely to "wander" off their zoo-like allotment. Rotational grazing permits where Bison have priority during winter months is a start with on-going monitoring and vaccination programs instead of culling.

The cattle ranchers claim right-by-use because of historical precedence but to imply or assume that managing wild game to benefit a shrinking part of Western economy also smacks of government largess for those with the lobbying capacity.

Transference of virus-pathogens comes from repeated contacts when it involves brucellosis. The pathogen pathways are multivarious and not strictly limited to elk or bison. The fact that Mr. Skinner includes wolves as another reason for culling is disingenuous since it carries the implication that it's another reason wolves should also be eradicated from North America lest we have them hunting elk which calve in meadows and pastures that cattle might also be in.

Ranchers have historically forced out every use that conflicts with their perceived ownership of public range lands that they feel are "theirs" and most especially the public range lands that surround the GYA areas without regard to other uses to that land including the historical grazing grounds of bison and elk.

To all parties concerned that want to get a handle on brucellosis in the Yellowstone bison herds and reduce the transferability by elk, a moratorium on domestic cattle grazing in adjacent public lands could allow enough time to reduce brucellosis by vaccine and monitoring instead of the current culling, harassment and razing practices that exist now.