Export restrictions on Montana's billion-dollar cattle industry are to be lifted today after federal officials declared the state once again free of the livestock disease brucellosis.
Brucellosis causes pregnant cattle and other animals to miscarry and 50 years ago had infected more than 100,000 farms nationwide.
Montana was the last state to be listed free of the disease. It persists in herds of wild elk and bison around Yellowstone National Park and has periodically passed to cattle in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.
"At least for now, all three states are free," said Tom Hougen, president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association. "I don't think we can close our eyes and think the problem's gone away. The problem's still there."
Blood tests on some cattle in Montana around Yellowstone will continue indefinitely.
Cattle infections in 2007 and 2008 led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to revoke the state's disease-free status last year. That forced thousands of livestock producers to test their cows for the disease before they could be shipped out of state.
The state has an estimated 2.6 million cattle. The disease-free status will be revoked again if another case is found within the next 12 months.
Idaho and Wyoming also lost their disease-free status in recent years but regained it.
The USDA's decision on Montana's status came after the state Department of Livestock increased disease monitoring in seven Yellowstone-area counties.
Still, the decision caught state livestock officials by surprise. They submitted an application to regain Montana's disease-free status in June expecting to wait up to six months for an answer.
"We're thrilled," state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said. "We've done over 165,000 brucellosis tests in the 12 months prior and we haven't found the disease. We're going to keep looking for it and have some degree of confidence that we won't find it."
Montana's Legislature has approved $2.4 million to reimburse ranchers for testing; it's uncertain if that will cover everyone. Cattle producers say they lose more money in time lost testing and rounding up hundreds of head of cattle.
Blood testing in the seven Yellowstone-area counties will continue for six more months, Zaluski said. After that, the state will focus testing within three or four counties where cattle have historically interacted with elk.
Zaluski said he believes the risk drop as ranchers learn to keep their livestock away from elk.
Elk are the suspected culprit in all seven cattle herd infections in the region over the last decade. An estimated 95,000 elk are in the greater Yellowstone area.