Elk spread brucellosis to cattle in Wyoming

Feb 24, 2012

Dick Geving, who runs two cattle operations near Cody and Meeteetse, WY, says he is fully convinced that introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park has helped worsen the threat of brucellosis spreading from elk to livestock.

The Wyoming Game & Fish Department is taking comments until Feb. 28 on a draft brucellosis management plan for the Cody area in Wyoming’s northwest corner. Such plans have been finalized for seven elk herds in the Jackson/Pinedale area, but not for the Cody area east of Yellowstone.

Geving and his family moved to Wyoming from northeast Iowa in 1979. He runs Mooncrest Ranch near Cody and jointly operates M.C. Land & Cattle near Meeteetse with his sons Craig and Eric. All in all, they run about 700 mother cows, keep yearlings and feed some out to slaughter, marketing the bulk of their steer calves through Cody Meat.

Geving estimates 300 head of elk, “a tremendous amount,” are bearing down on areas where his livestock feed. Elk and bison are known to transmit brucellosis, a disease that can cause cows to abort their calves. The Cody elk population is estimated to have grown to 6,500, with more relocating on land with cattle.

Geving’s operations have had a few replacement heifers test positive for brucellosis, including three or four incidents at the M.C. Land & Cattle operation. Adult cows were vaccinated last spring for additional protection. “We have firsthand experience as to this brucellosis problem,” Geving said.

The Meeteetse elk tend to be more migratory while those near Cody are indigenous.

“The problem that happened here is the introduction of the wolf. They run elk around so much it’s changed the habitat area and how they migrate,” Geving said, noting the carnivores are lurking close to where his cattle are calving. “There’s no doubt in my mind that’s part of the cause. … We’ve lost some animals to them. … It’s about a 24-hour job, I guess.”

Park County, east of Yellowstone National Park, was added in April 2011 to a designated brucellosis surveillance area, which included Fremont, Lincoln, Sublette and Teton counties in Wyoming.

The area’s vast expanse follows Highway 120 south to Lander and extends over to the Idaho border via Pinedale. Intact cows more than 12 months of age cannot be moved out of the area without testing. Cattle sales also cannot be done in the area without testing.

“We don’t have a problem with what the state is proposing to do. We have to protect our livestock market. We’ve had real good rapport with the state vet,” Geving said, adding Wyoming Game & Fish has done a good job getting samples from elk to determine infection levels.

Wyoming legislators are working on processing a wolf management plan agreed to by Gov. Matt Mead and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Geving suspects the state’s wolf protection zone will be the same as its brucellosis surveillance area, meaning that killing of wolves will not be allowed. However, outside that area, predators can be shot any time of the year.

“I think we all enjoy wildlife, but management of it has gotten to be such an emotional issue. Agencies have a hard time addressing the real problem,” he said. “That’s not going to help us up here in the northwest corner.”

Wyoming lost its brucellosis-free status in 2004 when 31 cattle tested positive in Sublette County west of Lander. Brucellosis was detected in cattle near Meeteetse in 2010. No Wyoming cattle are under quarantine for the disease now.

The draft brucellosis management plan includes working with landowners to improve hunter access, adjusting hunting seasons to maximize harvest numbers, and employing hunt management coordinators to promote elk hunting on private land. Wyoming Game & Fish also is encouraging hunters to take blood and tissue samples.

From 1991 to 2004, the percentage of Wyoming elk tested positive for brucellosis ranged from 1.4 percent to 4.3 percent; 2008, 9.5 percent; 2009, 17.2 percent, and 2010, 10.9 percent. — Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent