A federal government plan to carve out the Yellowstone area as an animal disease "hot-zone" faces opposition from some state veterinarians, who worry the move would lower cattle industry safeguards.
Creation of the zone would recognize Yellowstone as the last remaining region in the country where the disease brucellosis lingers. That could ease sanctions faced by some cattle producers when infections occur.
State veterinarians from across the country had backed the idea last year at an annual convention in North Carolina. But several have since said their support hinges on stepped-up efforts to curb the disease in Yellowstone's wildlife - something they say hasn't yet occurred.
"You can't address the root problem without addressing the wildlife populations that are infected," said Texas State Veterinarian Bob Hillman. "The wildlife populations know no boundaries … At some point you increase the risk that transmission is going to occur."
Once widespread within the nation's livestock industry, brucellosis has been eradicated elsewhere in the country through a government campaign that lasted decades. Yet the disease persists in Yellowstone's elk and bison herds - and has been passed on to livestock at least seven times in the last several years.
Creation of a special brucellosis management zone has been pushed by officials in the Yellowstone states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. They want to limit the economic consequences of future infections.
But backing from state veterinarians outside the region is considered key to the plan's success. They want assurances that Yellowstone's wildlife brucellosis isn't spreading and is actively being addressed.
Another potential hurdle is opposition from ranchers within the Yellowstone area. They potentially face stricter and costlier disease control requirements than ranchers elsewhere.
Brucellosis causes pregnant cows to prematurely abort their calves. Transmissions in recent years have cost cattle producers in the Yellowstone states tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and vaccination expenses.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal would end the practice of imposing sanctions against cattle producers statewide whenever an infection occurs within the Yellowstone region.
In turn, the states would increase disease testing and vaccination programs within Yellowstone's "high-risk" area, often called the hot-zone.
"Generally, the idea is a good one," said Brian McCluskey, western region director of veterinary services for the agency. "I'll be the first to admit we don't have perfect tools for eliminating (brucellosis) in wildlife, but we do have some tools."
McCluskey said it was up to the three states and their wildlife agencies - along with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service- to craft a plan to address the disease in elk and bison.
He said similar management zones have been established for animal tuberculosis in Michigan, Minnesota and New Mexico.
The USDA will begin taking public comment on its plan in the next several weeks, said spokeswoman Lyndsay Griffin.
An agency timeline calls for establishing the new management zone by June. That date could be pushed back in the face of strong opposition, Griffin said.
Montana is the latest state to lose its federal brucellosis-free designation following a pair of infections over the last two years. Stricter disease testing now mandated for cattle being shipped out of the state is expected to cost ranchers statewide $6 million to $12 million.
In a recent interview, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer - a backer of the hot-zone idea - defended measures taken to date to address brucellosis in wildlife.
More than 3,000 bison leaving Yellowstone National Park have been captured and slaughtered in Montana this decade to contain the disease. Controlling brucellosis the region's estimated 100,000 elk poses an even larger challenge that has yet to be solved by state wildlife managers.
"We've been hazing bison, capturing bison, slaughtering bison - I'd say we've done a fair bit," Schweitzer said. "Elk's a little tougher … But to simply say wildlife need to stay in the park is not a practical solution."
If the federal government moved forward absent widespread support for its plan, veterinarians from opposing states could impose their own restrictions on cattle imported from the three Yellowstone states.
Absent further progress on the wildlife front, South Dakota state veterinarian Sam Holland said states such as his own would be reluctant to accept cattle under the proposed Yellowstone hot-zone plan.
"It's going to really limit the market for those cattle," he said.