USDA to revamp brucellosis plan

Jul 7, 2009

USDA to revamp brucellosis plan

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has released a tentative proposal regarding brucellosis that, if enacted, could drastically change the way the disease is managed in the U.S. The proposal is actually a revised version of a plan that was first released last fall, but drew such intense criticism that APHIS withdrew it pending further input. The revised proposal, released June 25, was drafted through a collaborative effort between Idaho and Wyoming, two of the three states most heavily affected by the costly disease.

In September of last year, APHIS first put forth the idea of changing how brucellosis is handled in the U.S. The plan at that time proposed to designate the nation’s last brucellosis afflicted area, the region around Yellowstone National Park, as a "National Brucellosis Eradication Zone,"(NBEZ) and would have declared the rest of the country free of the disease, eliminating an eradication program that has been in place since the 1950s. Under the current eradication program, a state loses its "brucellosis free" status if more than one outbreak occurs within two years. Cattle from a non-certified state must be subjected to costly tests before they can be marketed or shipped over state lines. At the federal level, the current plan also provides research funding and support for improving vaccines and finding a method to eradicate the disease in wildlife. Although brucellosis has been effectively removed in most U.S. states, the disease is carried by free roaming bison and elk in the Yellowstone area and can be transmitted to cattle in the region surrounding the park. Montana is currently the only U.S. state not certified brucellosis free, although Idaho and Wyoming have both lost and regained their status at one time or another during recent years.

While producers in most of the country would have found the rules less stringent as a result of the proposed plan, cattle owners within the zone would have found themselves subjected to stricter regulations, increased vaccinations, and greater surveillance. State officials were quick to oppose the idea, fearing that USDA would simply turn its back on the disease once the zone had been established. In a May 5 letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Idaho’s governor Butch Otter and Wyoming’s governor Dave Freudenthal called the NBEZ plan "ill conceived and hastily contrived," and voiced concern that USDA would be able to "walk away forever" without getting rid of the disease. Ranchers from the area were also skeptical of the plan, and worried that a federal "hot zone" designation would make their cattle less desirable to buyers.

In response to the outcry, APHIS delayed the plan and pledged to seek the state’s input on the issue. In a meeting held June 18, APHIS and state officials reached a tentative agreement on a plan put forth jointly by Idaho and Wyoming. The new plan, which is based on a set of "core principles" agreed upon by all parties, gives each state the authority to draw their own boundaries and set rules for disease testing. This also includes the ability to impose quarantines on specific affected areas, rather than whole regions or entire states as with the old program. APHIS will still have the responsibility of reviewing and approving area boundaries and monitoring the activities of the states. Each of the three states could also opt to remain under federal control if they so choose.

As Jim Logan, Wyoming State Veterinarian, points out, the new plan also forces APHIS to remain actively involved in brucellosis mitigation, a key issue in the debate that surrounded the previous plan.

"At least with this concept, APHIS will have to be at the table," says Logan, "they can’t just walk away."

Although APHIS and state officials think the plan will work, the proposal must first stand up to public comment and further review by animal health officials, meaning a lengthy road ahead before anything can be finalized.

"It’s important for everyone to realize that this is something that is just in its infancy," says Logan. "This thing has a long ways yet to go."

Logan also said that while he is certain the new plan is an improvement over the earlier NBEZ plan, he can understand the skepticism amongst ranchers in the Yellowstone area. However, he feels confident that the plan is headed in the right direction.

"If everyone will be open minded enough to let this thing play out, attend the meetings and give their input, and if officials in the three states stay involved, I think we’ll come out with a good program," said Logan. — Jason Campbell, WLJ Correspondent