By BRETT FRENCH | The Billings Gazette

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) _ Over the past five years, Montana’s wildlife managers have gained a greater understanding of the elk brucellosis issue surrounding Yellowstone National Park and are making incremental progress in trying to manage the spread of the disease to cattle.

But it hasn’t been easy and without controversy. And despite some successes, the program is still equally despised by some ranchers and hunters. Does that mean Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has found the middle ground?

“We do see the program responding to the concerns we’ve heard from the public,” said Quentin Kujala, Wildlife Management Bureau chief for Fish, Wildlife and Parks. “Landowners have tools that we can use, all with an eye to preventing infection. And 20 elk have been taken with hunters. So we think it is a careful balance between those two push points.”

Earlier this month, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved the 2015-16 elk brucellosis working plan that outlines actions the agency can take. It’s the fourth such plan approved by the commission and is annually modified to deal with new issues. This year, the plan would allow landowners to pick a portion of the hunters authorized to remove elk from their property.

The elk brucellosis management effort hasn’t been without significant cost. Over the past three years of the program, more than $847,000 has been spent by FWP and the Montana Department of Livestock on the program, which is designed to keep elk and cattle from mingling to decrease the chance of brucellosis infection.

Of that, more than $214,000 has come from FWP’s coffers. FWP receives no general fund money from the state, relying instead on the sale of fishing and hunting licenses to fill its bank account. Although the Department of Livestock is credited with the lion’s share of spending on the program, all of its funding is coming from the federal government’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS.

In the past, APHIS has advocated for eradication of the disease since the Greater Yellowstone Area is the last reservoir of brucellosis in the United States. Bison in Yellowstone National Park are also carriers of brucellosis. Past references like this made by APHIS worries wildlife advocates.

If one year could serve as a sign of success of FWP’s cooperative program, it might be this past winter. There were no cattle that tested positive for exposure to brucellosis within what’s called the Designated Surveillance Area. The DSA stretches across portions of four counties in southwestern Montana, Beaverhead, Madison, Gallatin and Park counties, that border Yellowstone National Park. And no elk were killed by hunters or landowners in an attempt to haze animals away from livestock.

“I think it went well,” said Karen Loveless, a Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist based in Livingston. “It was a pretty mild winter, so there was less hazing than we normally do.”

FWP actions specific to elk brucellosis management should not be confused with game damage hunts, which are used to remove wildlife that are depredating on landowners haystacks and grain fields. The game damage hunts can have the same effect, though _ dispersing congregations of wildlife across the landscape.

That was the case in the southern Shields Valley, Hunting District 393, the last two winters. At times, Loveless has seen up to 1,000 elk concentrated in one group. But work by FWP and cooperation from landowners to provide access has helped break up such large herds.

“It just about doubled our antlerless harvest,” Loveless told The Billings Gazette.

So far, those large groups of Shields Valley elk have not tested positive for exposure to brucellosis. But between 2011 and 2015, FWP has “captured and sampled 518 elk from seven study areas and found 45 that tested positive for exposure to the B. abortus bacteria that can cause brucellosis.” Exposure to the disease, called seroprevalence, does not mean the animal is infected, only that it carries the bacteria that can cause infection.

Brucellosis can cause young pregnant cattle, as well as elk, to abort. It’s believed the most infectious materials come from birthing fluids and tissue. So keeping cattle and elk separated at the time the elk calve is thought to be key to controlling the spread of the disease.

Some landowners believe the best way to remove the disease from the landscape is to remove all seroprevalent elk, whether they are infectious or not. Infection can only be verified by a necropsy after the animal is killed. That will occur this winter for the first time after FWP captures five cow elk that have previously tested and re-tested positive for exposure to brucellosis since 2011. The DOL lab will perform the necropsies.

“I don’t think enough is being done to lower the prevalence,” said Alan Redfield, a rancher and legislator who lives in the Paradise Valley, which is ground zero for the issue. “They don’t want to let people work it like it should be. That’s why the Legislature was getting their fingers into it.”

In the 2013 Legislature, Redfield sponsored a bill that would have allowed the slaughter of elk that tested positive for exposure to brucellosis. Although the bill died amid conservationists’ outrage, and FWP has instituted guidelines allowing ranchers to fence out elk, no one has taken advantage of the offer. Redfield said that’s because there are “too many rules.”

Exemplifying the difficulty of the program, Redfield said there are also elk that scatter to the river bottom where they aren’t hunted or hazed and in his area the elk numbers are so low that FWP has tightened the regulations allowing cow elk harvest.

“The objective is to get rid of brucellosis,” Redfield said. “They ought to target that group (Mill Creek north to Pine Creek) and reduce the population.”

Although some hunting groups support FWP’s work so far they also continually reiterate that the problem remains one caused by landowners who harbor elk on their property, not allowing public hunting.

Access is at the root of the problem, said Nick Gevock, of the Montana Wildlife Federation.

“We have a proven tool for redistributing wildlife, and that’s public hunting,” Dave Chadwick, president of the MWF, told the Fish and Wildlife Commission in August.

He said the entire problem could be more easily solved with public hunting. But instead he sees “increasingly complicated efforts on the wildlife side” without similar responses from livestock producers and landowners.

Joe Cohenour, who served on the elk brucellosis working group, took that a step farther, telling the commission that the DOL should be doing more to educate its producers. He also said that maybe FWP should be looking more closely at making state Wildlife Management Areas even more attractive to wildlife by investing in things like controlled burns and weed control.

Kathryn QannaYahu, of Enhancing Montana’s Wildlife and Habitat, continues to request that FWP conduct an environmental impact statement to thoroughly analyze the effects of its elk brucellosis management plan, so far to no avail.

For her part, Loveless feels that the plan for managing the brucellosis infection in elk can be managed in the long term, although it will continue to be modified as scientists, wildlife managers, hunters and landowners work together.

“There are people who aren’t happy with (the plan), sportsmen who feel it’s harassment how far we’re pushing (elk),” Loveless said. “But honestly, brucellosis isn’t going away. It’s about finding a balance.”

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Information from: The Billings Gazette, http://www.billingsgazette.com