A controversial proposal that could allow some Paradise Valley ranchers to fence out and kill elk in the spring in an attempt to fight disease transmission from elk to cattle was approved by the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission in a 3-2 vote Thursday, despite opposition from sportsmen.
Calling the plan “surgical,” commission chairman Dan Vermillion supported the idea at the group’s lengthy hearing in Helena.
He said the Mill Creek area of the Paradise Valley south of Livingston is the “epicenter” of three out of the last five brucellosis disease outbreaks in cattle, so the plan is an opportunity to see if the proposed methods will work.
Also voting in favor of the plan were commissioners Gary Wolfe and Richard Stuker. Opposing the measure were commissioners Matthew Tourtlotte and Larry Wetsit.
“Not a single sportsman or sportsmen’s group supports this proposal,” said Tourtlotte, of Billings. “I find it lacking in detail and it puts a tremendous burden on sportsmen” with no indication of when the obligations might end.
Brucellosis can cause pregnant cattle to abort. The disease is believed to be transferred when cattle come in contact with birthing material from an infected elk. Keeping the animals separate when elk are giving birth, then, is believed to be an effective tool to control outbreaks.
FWP envisions keeping the animals separate in two new ways.
Under the plan, Paradise Valley ranchers could ask FWP to pay for fencing to keep elk and cattle separate in the spring when the chance of disease transmission is greatest. A written plan would be submitted by the landowner to FWP, which would open the proposal to public review. The fence would have to be taken down or made passable after the risk period was over.
FWP could also issue one kill permit allowing a landowner to shoot three male elk from May 1-15, the idea being to scare the animals away. The permits would have to be authorized by the area commissioner and regional supervisor.
These measures are in addition to what’s already occurring, which includes hazing the elk off of private property and so-called management hunts that bring in hunters to kill some elk in an attempt to scare the rest of the herd away.
Paradise Valley rancher Druska Kinkie, who helped organize the local meetings in which the program was formulated, said, “What we are trying to come up with is a path forward. This only applies to the Paradise Valley. We’re asking for the commission today to work with us … to try new things.”
Sportsmen criticized the new measures as not meeting FWP’s own brucellosis management plan, defying the state’s ban on fences that block wildlife movement and costing hunters an unknown amount of money.
They also said the group that formulated the original plan was heavily weighted toward livestock interests, although after taking public comments on the initial proposal — with comments overwhelmingly in opposition to the plan — it was modified by FWP staff.
“One of my biggest worries is the precedent this is setting,” said Vito Quatraro of the Montana Sportsmen Alliance. “When the Madison Valley landowners come to the commission, they will ask for” more.
J.W. Westman, of the Laurel Rod and Gun Club, said FWP can’t address the issue of brucellosis transmission without also attacking the problem of landowners who harbor elk, shielding them from hunters and allowing them to congregate where disease transmission is more likely to occur.
“There are just so many things that the public has been left in the dark about,” said Tony Schoonen, of Butte.
The commission’s approval allows FWP to adjust the 2014 brucellosis risk management plan, but only in the Paradise Valley, not the rest of what’s known as the Designated Surveillance Area that surrounds Yellowstone National Park in the southwest corner of the state where the disease has spread from.
Although the risk of disease transmission from elk to cattle is small, FWP wildlife bureau chief Quentin Kujala said, “The infections have happened and there are real consequences.”
Mark Albrecht, a Bozeman veterinarian who is a member of the state’s brucellosis working group, praised FWP for seeking a solution while other states and government agencies ignore the problem.
“This can’t all be on the backs of livestock producers,” Albrecht said, yet he advocated for a more accurate accounting of the costs to FWP and a documentation of whether killing elk provides the desired results.
Department of Livestock veterinarian Marty Zaluski said his agency supports the plan, understanding that it is limited in scope and specific to the Paradise Valley. He said the incidence of brucellosis outbreaks in that one area is a risk that does “not likely exist elsewhere in the state of Montana.”