YELLOWSTONE, Wyo. — When 300 elk began feeding alongside cattle in Jim Durgan’s alfalfa fields early this spring in the Paradise Valley and then started raiding his haystack, he called Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
In the first year of an aggressive management plan meant to reduce or prevent the transmission of the disease brucellosis from elk to cattle in areas surrounding Yellowstone National Park, FWP offered to provide a hazer to move the elk and to pay up to $2,000 for fencing to enclose Durgan’s haystack.
Working sometimes at night and early in the morning to move the elk out, the hazing worked. Durgan was pleased.
“A local guy did a very good job, and I really appreciated it,” he said.
Although the tactic worked, Durgan said the measures do not solve the bigger problems. These include wolves that he claims are bunching elk up into larger herds and pushing them onto private lands seeking safety, lack of access to some private lands for hunters to disperse and reduce the size of elk herds and what he sees as overall poor wildlife management by the state and federal government.
“Personally, I thing this is just a band-aid,” he said.
Durgan’s concerns point out the complexities of trying to manage a difficult situation that blends a variety of groups with different agendas while trying to deal with wildlife that aren’t always easy to manage.
The outline of the plan was developed by a working group of people from various backgrounds and modified and adopted by the FWP Commission in January. The idea in this first year was to go slow, said Quentin Kujala, FWP’s wildlife management section chief. In addition to providing a hazer and money for fencing, the department also allowed two dispersal hunts meant to move animals away from cattle operations. One such hunt was held in Hunting District 317, the east side of Paradise Valley, and the other in HD 560, south of Big Timber.
“Before, the department would have issued permits to landowners,” said Dan Vermillion, FWP Commission chairman who lives in Livingston. “This year it was much more surgical.”
In all, hunters took 13 cow elk from the two areas. None of the elk in HD 560 tested positive for exposure to brucellosis while three of the cow elk in Paradise Valley tested positive.
Transmission of the disease is greatest when the elk give birth in spring – hence the attempts to keep the elk separated from cattle in spring. An infected cow elk’s afterbirth can transmit brucellosis if cattle come into contact with it, although sunlight has been shown to eventually kill the disease.
Cattle that tested positive for the disease used to mean slaughter of the entire herd and the lessening of status for all Montana cattle affecting their value. But newer regulations only require that cattle that are being moved out of the Designated Surveillance Area near Yellowstone Park be tested for brucellosis to stem any spread of the disease.
Out of pocket expenses for the program this year included more than $1,550 in payment to the hazer and more than $7,750 for fencing at four cattle ranches. That amount included fencing at one ranch where hunting by the public is not allowed, a fact that irritates sporting groups.
Hunting is seen as the best management tool for the state to control the size and distribution of wild game. But on large private holdings, if hunting is limited or public hunting is not allowed, game animals will view the property as a refuge, even hiding out on the land during hunting season. The problem is when those animals then wander onto adjacent lands and raid haystacks or agricultural fields.
Kujala said FWP will help landowners that do not allow hunting, but only if they are willing to work toward and discuss a resolution to what’s become known as wildlife harboring.
On the other side of the elk brucellosis management issue are people like Bozeman wildlife advocate Kathryn QannaYahu. She has criticized the new management actions and charges that FWP’s interactions with landowners should be open to greater public scrutiny.
“There is no accountability and transparency in what is taking place,” she said.
QannaYahu sees the entire operation as an attempt by FWP to manage for livestock rather than wildlife.
“This is all about grass, this is not about brucellosis,” she said.
FWP’s Kujala noted that the disparity between the concerns of constituents like QannaYahu and Durgan demonstrate the huge gap that exists in how to deal with the issue of brucellosis infected elk and the possible transmission of the disease to cattle.
“Part of the challenge is still getting everyone on the same page,” Kujala said.
To that end, on Thursday the elk brucellosis working group will meet at the Bozeman FWP office at 10 a.m. to review this season’s first year of field work with an eye to possibly modifying the plan for next season.
In August, the FWP Commission will take up any recommendations from the working group and then seek public comment on next year’s plan.
The agency and its partners are still learning about where and when are the best times to haze to be most effective, Kujala said, and where and when to place hunters to maximize their effectiveness. The end game is to educate the elk into staying away from cattle and agricultural fields, especially during the spring elk calving season.
“Given that we have seen some success, we would look at having the same tools available again next year,” Kujala said.