« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The big, bad, brucellosis-spreading wolf?


In Wyoming, some legislators are straining to connect the dots between two of their biggest management headaches. The livestock disease brucellosis, which causes cows to abort their calves, has cost ranchers millions. And the gray wolf, reintroduced in '95, has created huge controversy.  Now, a state lawmaker is asking for $45,000 to test wolves for brucellosis -- despite the fact that studies have shown that wolves cannot transmit the disease to other animals, and that testing in the state over the past 15 years has never found an infected wolf.

Apparently, Sen. Kit Jennings, R-Casper, was inspired by a South Korea study he said proves that dogs can pass brucellosis to cows (actually, what the study showed is that cows can pass brucellosis to dogs).  The most likely path of  transmission to cattle is from wild elk, although bison have been blamed too (they probably don't infect cows directly, but may provide a reservoir for the disease). The AP reports, in regards to the idea of testing wolves:

"It's not even an issue," said Mike Jimenez, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's wolf recovery project director for Wyoming. "No one's ever really been concerned about it, but for whatever reason if there is a concern, it's easy enough to test for it."

Contention over how to handle the spread of both brucellosis and wolves has been fierce in the state. Wyoming officials have vaccinated hundreds of bison and elk, and killed thousands of bison that leave Yellowstone in search of winter forage. The state's elk feedgrounds are hotbeds of the disease, with infection rates up to 30 percent. Wildlife professionals say they should be phased out, but local  outfitters and politicians, including Sen. Jennings, have fought against closing them (Jennings is just full of wildlife management ideas -- he's also proposed farming imperiled sage grouse).

Meanwhile, although the feds have turned over control of wolf management in Idaho and Montana, they've kept the reins in Wyoming, because the state has failed to come up with an acceptable plan (the latest iteration still allows wolves to be shot on sight across most of the state). 

Jennings and other lawmakers must be crossing their fingers. It's an awfully long shot to establish a link between wolves and brucellosis. But the protection of Wyoming's livestock industry has been used to justify years of hazing and killing bison that leave Yellowstone -- and it could give the state more ammo for similarly confining wolves to the park.