A broad plan to protect against animal disease around Yellowstone National Park by targeting infected elk herds gained initial approval Thursday from Montana wildlife commissioners.
The plan includes measures to reduce the size of some elk herds, haze the animals away from livestock and even erect elk-proof fending. It was drafted by a state-appointed citizens working group.
The hope is to curb elk-to-livestock transmissions of the disease brucellosis, which can cause pregnant animals to miscarry their young and brings significant costs for the cattle industry.
Thursday's adoption of the citizens group's recommendations by the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission opens the plan to public comment.
Details not yet settled include which elk herds could be targeted and whether that would be done through normal hunting seasons.
Members of the citizens group said they offered only those proposals they thought could be effective and widely accepted.
Disagreements among landowners, hunters and the livestock industry have complicated past efforts to resolve the problem.
Some landowners raise worries about government workers coming onto private property to haze elk. Hunters, meanwhile, want to guard against killing off too many of the animals in the name of protecting livestock.
Brucellosis has been eliminated elsewhere in the country but persists in elk and bison in parts of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana adjacent to Yellowstone.
"The key thing is that we maintain spatial separation between (brucellosis) positive elk and breeding livestock," said Rick Gibson, a member of the citizens group and a rancher from the Livingston area. Gibson has faced significant costs from disease testing and vaccinations now required of livestock producers in the Yellowstone area.
Other steps called for in the plan adopted Thursday include increased monitoring of infected elk, public funding to put up fences around cattle feed areas and reduced wolf pack numbers to keep the predators from driving elk onto ranchland.
For years, some of the most aggressive brucellosis control actions have centered on Yellowstone's bison, which are periodically slaughtered by the hundreds during their winter migrations to prevent infections in cattle.
But the region's approximately 100,000 elk are more loosely managed. Researchers say brucellosis has been spreading within elk herds and showing up in new areas in recent decades.
"Not only has the geographic range expanded, but in some areas the (rate of infections) has increased," State Veterinarian Marty Zaluski told commissioners.
Officials have shied away from the capture and slaughter of diseased elk — a controversial approach that has been used in Wyoming with some success but at great cost.
Members of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, a sporting group, had urged the commission not to adopt the plan, saying the proposal needed more public input and could prove too costly.
In the past decade alone at least 14 brucellosis infections in livestock were reported in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Elk were named as the likely source of the disease in most cases.
Some of the infections triggered harsh sanctions against the region's lucrative livestock industries by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal government and livestock officials in other states have more recently softened their stance, largely due to more aggressive testing and vaccine programs for Yellowstone area livestock.
A brucellosis-monitoring initiative for Montana elk that began two winters ago has so far found new cases of the disease in southwest Montana's Ruby Valley and the nearby Gravelly and Snowcrest ranges south of Dillon. About 12 percent of the animals captured tested positive for exposure to the disease.
More tests are planned on elk in the southern Pioneer Mountains this winter and in the Tobacco Root Mountains in the winter of 2013-2014.