Cattle ranchers in the Paradise Valley asked the Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday to extend the season for lethal elk removals in the area to May 15 and to pay for fencing to keep elk out of feeding and calving areas.
The controversial proposals were drawn up by a subcommittee of the upper Yellowstone watershed group as a way to reduce the transmission of the disease brucellosis from infected elk to cattle during the spring, which is when brucellosis is spread through contact with aborted fetal tissue from infected animals.
Fish, Wildlife and Parks currently has a policy to pay for fencing materials to block wildlife from raiding haystacks. The fencing supplies are provided to landowners who allow public hunting.
In what has been deemed the designated surveillance area for brucellosis around Yellowstone National Park, FWP allows elk hazing and fencing to help landowners from Jan. 15 through June 15. Lethal elk removals are allowed through April 30, but the number of elk killed is limited to 10 each time. Hunters on a roster are called to remove the elk.
Although admitting the fencing proposal is “a little scary” because it lacks details about the type of fencing and costs, Paradise Valley rancher Druska Kinkie told the commission the finer details would be worked out by the landowner and Fish, Wildlife and Parks to address specific situations on different properties. Each project would be unique.
“The goal is not to stop elk but to get them to take a different route,” she said.
Eric Liska, the Department of Livestock’s brucellosis program veterinarian, supported the proposals, noting that landowners have only two tools to fight brucellosis infection: vaccination of their livestock, which isn’t 100 percent effective, and keeping their livestock separated from elk during the spring.
“If we can use hunting to increase that separation, hopefully we will not see this trend continue in the Paradise Valley,” he said.
Liska also said the Department of Livestock would be a possible source of money to help with the cost of any fencing projects.
Wildlife groups opposed
The proposal immediately came under fire from people attending the meeting or listening in.
Park City resident J.W. Westman said the Laurel Rod and Gun Club was opposed to the proposals, placing the blame for spread of the disease on some ranches that provide a safe harbor for elk during the hunting season. He also pointed to the surrounding states of Idaho and Wyoming which have elk feedgrounds where disease is more easily spread as being at the root of the problem.
Kathryn QannaYahu, a Bozeman environmentalist, said such measures seem extreme and possibly expensive and said the risk of brucellosis transmission from elk to cattle is only .00024 percent.
“This is about depopulating, removing a forage competition ungulate from the landscape, sportsmen’s dollars subsidizing their socialized agriculture and game ranching,” she wrote in an email.
Working groups rapped
Others expressed concern that the group making the proposal contains no members of sporting groups, hunters or other members of the public to provide a balanced recommendation.
“These working groups have become more or less dysfunctional,” said Bill O’Connell, a Bozeman-area farmer who was once a member of a similar group in the Madison Valley.
Mark Albrecht, a Bozeman veterinarian and member of the statewide elk working group, agreed the local working groups need help. He also said that if the department decides to extend the season for lethal elk removals, an environmental assessment should be conducted. He said that without studying the issue, FWP could be promoting more elk abortions caused by stressing the animals. If that were the case, the agency would be increasing the risk of transmission by trying to remove more elk.
“Let’s not forget the science,” Albrecht said.
Fish and Wildlife Commission chairman Dan Vermillion, who lives in Livingston, supported the Paradise Valley landowners for coming forth with recommendations to address the problem. He noted that some of the ranches where infection has occurred were open to public hunting, that elk numbers are within FWP’s objectives and that the elk causing problems aren’t showing up during the hunting season, but arrive in March.
But he also expressed concerns about the methods landowners proposed and the difficulty of solving an issue when Wyoming and Idaho continue to congregate elk on feedgrounds during the winter.
“It’s now time for Montanans to weigh in,” Vermillion said, noting that proposals will come before the commission again at its April 10 meeting. Comments will be taken until March 21.
“Let us know what you think, because this is huge,” he said.