REIGNITING many debates over the best way to control and eliminate brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area, the National Park Service (NPS) released last week a final environmental impact statement (EIS) on a brucellosis remote vaccination program for bison in Yellowstone National Park.
NPS said its preferred choice is the "no action" alternative, which would continue the currently authorized syringe vaccination of bison calves and yearlings periodically captured at the northern boundary of the park.
The action alternatives, which would have implemented a remote vaccination program that used non-lethal "bio-bullets" containing a vaccine, were dismissed because of substantial uncertainties over vaccine effectiveness and delivery, the cost of a 30-year program, potential impacts to wildlife behavior and the visitor experience and evaluation of public comments, NPS said Jan. 14.
"We don't think it makes any sense to spend millions of taxpayer dollars and invest 30 years of effort in hopes of a small reduction in the prevalence of brucellosis in bison with no significant benefit to bison conservation," Yellowstone National Park superintendent Dan Wenk said. "The fact is that by working with our federal, state and tribal partners, we have completely kept wild bison from infecting area livestock with brucellosis."
Brucellosis can cause pregnant cattle, elk and bison to abort their calves. Cattle brought this non-native disease to the region when pioneers settled the West. The disease was subsequently transmitted to local wildlife populations. Many bison and elk in the 28,000-square mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been exposed to the bacterium that causes brucellosis. The Yellowstone area is the last reservoir of brucellosis in the U.S.
NPS said the preferred alternative is supported by the inclusive Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP) Citizen's Working Group, several American Indian tribes, the Intertribal Buffalo Council and the conclusions of a February 2013 Bison/Brucellosis Science panel composed of disease experts and organized by NPS and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.
The EIS was prepared in response to a commitment NPS made in 2000 as part of a court-mediated settlement between the federal government and the state of Montana that resulted in the creation of IBMP. Additional information and an electronic copy of the final EIS are available online at http://parkplanning.nps.gov/BisonRemoteVacc.
Montana Stockgrowers Assn. executive vice president Errol Rice told Feedstuffs that his organization, which represents commercial livestock interests in Montana, was disappointed in the decision and viewed it as a "bit of a step back" on the issue. He said Montana Stockgrowers had submitted "significant comments" on the EIS since it was proposed in 2009-10.
Room to roam
On a related front, the Montana Board of Livestock weighed in last week on a draft environmental analysis regarding year-round tolerance of bison outside of Yellowstone Park by initially endorsing the NPS no-action alternative.
The draft analysis concerns a plan that would allow more bison to wander through public areas of Montana north and west of Yellowstone.
"We're keeping the door open, but the board unanimously believes there are unanswered questions that need to be resolved before we can do anything other than support the no-action alternative," said board chair Jan French, a cattle industry representative from Hobson, Mont.
"Specifically, we'd like to see more information about bison population thresholds," she said. "Would more habitat mean more bison? We don't know, and with the park's bison population hovering at near-record highs, it just wouldn't be prudent to move forward without having more information on that and a few other topics."
As such, the board directed Montana Department of Livestock staff to work with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to try and come up with more details. French said the board will revisit the draft analysis as more information becomes available.
Rice added that Montana Stockgrowers agreed with the board action, questioning what is a reasonable population of bison in the Greater Yellowstone Area.
He pointed out that cattle producers in Montana have been operating under a brucellosis elimination zone (Feedstuffs, May 18, 2009) in which ranchers have increased brucellosis testing requirements to ship cattle out of state, which add to the ranchers' production costs.
Rice said there are "a lot of moving parts" to managing bison and migratory elk and controlling brucellosis in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and devising a final plan will be a long, drawn-out process.