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by David Gowdey, Executive Director, Wyoming Wildlife Federation

Representatives from the US Department of the Interior and the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC revealed an agreement between the two agencies to “eliminate” brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA).  On May 25, this Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was presented at the Greater Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee (GYIBC) meeting to representatives of the states of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana with a request that they sign it without making any changes or revisions.  On June 8, a spokeswoman for Governor Freudenthal said that the Governor would not sign the MOU without some additional safeguards for wildlife written into the text.  The Wyoming Wildlife Federation strongly supports the Governor’s position because as it is currently written, this document has the potential to result in the wholesale slaughter of elk and bison in northwest Wyoming, and impose de facto Federal control of elk and bison population numbers in a good portion of Wyoming.

This new MOU, proposed by the Federal Government, with its emphasis on the “elimination” of brucellosis, is a major change from the historic focus of the GYIBC.  In the past, the emphasis has been on preventing the transmission of brucellosis between wildlife and livestock.  The reason this change is so alarming is that, at present, we don’t have a way to fully eliminate brucellosis without eliminating all of the wildlife that are infected or potential carriers.  Effective vaccines for elk and bison have not yet been developed, and other proposed methods have not yet proven successful.  The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report on this issue stated “Total eradication of brucellosis as a goal is more of a statement of principle than a workable program at present; neither sufficient information nor technical capability is available to implement a brucellosis-eradication program in the GYA.” The NAS went on to state: “It might prove impossible for various reasons to eliminate brucellosis from bison and elk in the GYA, so the best that could be achieved would be risk control.”   For us in Wyoming, trying to “eliminate” brucellosis under these circumstances could potentially mean the loss of thousands of elk and the elimination of hunting opportunities for hundreds of hunters, with the consequent negative economic impacts to local communities and to the Game and Fish Department in lost revenues.

In addition, the draft MOU fails to adequately recognize the ongoing work of affected States in their efforts to control brucellosis. Wyoming, in particular, has taken bold steps through the work of Governor Freudenthal’s Brucellosis Coordination Team and its recommendations.  In addition, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has long been in the forefront of efforts to control brucellosis in wildlife.  Though Wyoming has already committed to complete brucellosis management plans by the end of 2007, the MOU mandates completion by 2006.  The draft MOU should better reflect the budget and timing constraints of State agencies, and more fully recognize the significant progress that has been made, especially in Wyoming.

We are also concerned that the MOU places the lion’s share of the burden for brucellosis control and elimination on wildlife, as there is little mention of managing livestock in a manner that reduces the risk of transmission.  This is in stark contrast to the recommendations of the Governor’s Brucellosis Recommendation Team, which place responsibility for reducing the incidence of brucellosis on livestock producers as well as wildlife.  Likewise, the MOU appears to put less emphasis on the economic importance of wildlife/hunting than it does on protecting the viability of the livestock industry in the affected states.  We believe that protection of the viability of wildlife-related industry and services should appear alongside protection of the livestock industry as equal, if not greater, importance in the MOU’s goal statement, reflecting their true economic importance in the region.

This is why the Wyoming Wildlife Federation is supporting Governor Freudenthal’s position and urging him to use extreme caution in signing on to this MOU.  The brucellosis issue in the GYA presents a tangle of complex elements and interests. One of the most serious questions raised by this MOU is where the balance is between the States’ duty to manage wildlife versus the Federal responsibility - through the Department of Agriculture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) – to manage diseases that affect the agricultural industry.  We believe the MOU as written does not adequately emphasize the right of the States to manage their wildlife resources, and we strongly urge the governors of the affected States to join Governor Freudenthal in amending the MOU to further protect States rights, to recognize ongoing State efforts to control brucellosis, and to ensure that brucellosis elimination efforts will not be accomplished at the expense of wildlife, sportsmen, and other wildlife enthusiasts.

Brucellosis Op-Ed
By by Mark Winland, President, Wyoming Wildlife Federation. 

In his perspective piece in the Casper Star Tribune on April 17, Mr. Robert Hoskins made a number of claims about the Wyoming Wildlife Federation (WWF) and its position on efforts to eradicate brucellosis from Wyoming’s elk herds. I believe that his portrayal presented an incomplete and inaccurate picture, and feel that it is important to set the record straight. 

In our initial review of the draft recommendations of the Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Team, the WWF Board of Directors offered conditional support of the Pinedale Pilot Project, which involves test and cull methods, only if the following stipulations were included in the group’s Final Report: that the project would be viewed as an experiment, following strict scientific protocol and limited to five years; that expansion of this project to feed grounds outside the project area would not take place without public review and comment; and that the project would result in no significant loss of elk numbers (i.e., a reduction of no more than 10% below herd objective). In addition, we said that other efforts to reduce brucellosis should be concurrently developed and implemented.

Although Mr. Hoskins states that he saw little action by the WWF toward placing restrictions on this project, our stipulations were in fact discussed at the final BCT meeting in Lander.  Furthermore, all of our conditions appear in the BCT’s Final Report, which has now also been endorsed by the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission. The WWF plans to closely monitor this project to ensure that these conditions are being met.

Mr. Hoskins goes on to challenge the scientific basis of the project, challenging us to provide any scientific document that supports the claim that this method has had some success in diminishing brucellosis in wildlife.  In fact, the state of Idaho has implemented a similar effort to reduce the incidence of brucellosis in feed ground elk and has seen a dramatic reduction in brucellosis seroprevalence in the herd. Though this data is currently not part of a published study, disease experts and other members on the BCT felt that it was worth attempting a similar experimental effort here in Wyoming, as part of a broad range of tools to reduce seroprevalence. We chose, with the conditions we have set forth, to support that recommendation.  I also need to briefly point out that Mr. Hoskins’ comparisons between Montana’s brucellosis reduction program in Yellowstone’s bison and Wyoming’s proposed pilot project are inappropriate, as both the species and conditions under which the two programs are, or will be, operated are worlds apart.

Mr. Hoskins correctly said that the WWF stated that it would consider a proposal by three conservation organizations to close feed grounds in the Gros Ventre if it contained more scientific detail. We did, in fact, offer a potential endorsement of the Gros Ventre proposal if the WWF could be assured that it could meet the same conditions we outlined for the Pinedale Pilot Project. Our major concern is whether sufficient winter range exists to satisfy the “no significant loss of elk numbers” stipulation, and we await data from the proposal’s authors on that aspect, as well as our other conditions of support.

Brucellosis is a serious problem for both wildlife and livestock in Wyoming.  The issue is complex, and difficult to solve.  The Wyoming Wildlife Federation is working with a variety of groups to find a pragmatic solution to the brucellosis problem that Wyoming’s wildlife and citizenry can live with.  This means that we are willing to consider a variety of approaches.  I’m sorry that Mr. Hoskins does not feel that our position on the recommendations of the BCT meets his standards – but the WWF will not be bullied by him or his group into changing that position. 

One of the reasons the Wyoming Wildlife Federation is the state’s oldest and largest conservation organization is because we are a balanced group that supports management of our wildlife and natural resources based on science rather than ideology.  This approach leaves us open to attacks from both sides of the conservation and political spectrum. Although we attempt to work with all organizations in the sportsmen and conservation arena, there are times when we will simply not agree.  We wish the Dubois Wildlife Association well in their future endeavors.

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