HELENA, Mont. - The day after a serious cattle disease appeared in Montana, the owner of the infected herd discussed slaughtering all his animals, while a leading agricultural economist warned of a substantial, multimillion-dollar economic hit to come.
Late Tuesday afternoon, state officials confirmed that the owner of the infected herd was Art Burns of Pray.
Tests confirmed Monday that a heifer north of Yellowstone National Park had contracted brucellosis - a disease of cattle, elk, bison and swine that can cause cows to abort their first calves. The incident marked the second time the disease has surfaced in Montana in just over a year, which means Montana will soon lose its status as a "brucellosis-free" state.
Christian Mackay, executive officer of the Montana Board of Livestock, said the rancher owned less than 50 head of cattle, a relatively small commercial herd. He said the cattle were located north of Tom Miner Basin in the Paradise Valley in an area where no bison had been in the last two years.
Mackay also said the rancher was in preliminary talks with federal officials about potentially slaughtering his entire herd.
The U.S. government has long pushed to eradicate brucellosis from the American cattle herd. Just five months ago, federal officials announced that for the first time in 74 years, all cattle in the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands were considered "brucellosis-free."
Despite those efforts, the disease persists in the wild elk and bison in and around Yellowstone National Park, where decades ago it jumped into wildlife from domestic cattle.
Last May, a herd near Bridger tested positive for the disease. Those animals were later traced to another herd near Emigrant, not far from Yellowstone.
That incident started a clock running that mandated Montana would lose its disease-free status if a second case was found within two years.
Both Wyoming and Idaho have found brucellosis cases near the park in recent years. Both states lost, then regained their status as brucellosis-free states.
Montana, Wyoming and Idaho are all participating in a complicated state and federal plan intended to keep Yellowstone's bison from spreading brucellosis to neighboring cattle. The plan does not mention elk, which are also known to carry the disease in Montana, but not in the same numbers as bison, according to state information.
Losing the state's brucellosis-free status will cost Montana's cattle industry millions of dollars, said Myles Watts, an agricultural economist at Montana State University.
Federal brucellosis rules require Montana ranchers to test most cattle older than 18 months old for the disease before they can be moved out of state. While the vast majority of Montana's cattle crop is animals younger than 18 months bound for out-of-state feedlots, Watts estimated that Montana exports up to 240,000 older stock every year; each will have to be tested and quarantined before they can be shipped.
Just the cost of testing those animals could be around $3.5 million, Watts said, to say nothing of the cost of feeding the cattle and the lower prices they may garner at auction due to the state's disease status.
He also said it would cast a pall both over the state's cattle genetics industry, where buyers may be more likely to seek breeding stock or semen from a state untainted by brucellosis.
"It's certainly a black cloud at this point in time," he said.
State and federal regulators are now beginning the lengthy process of testing all the animals around the infected herd and all herds that might have come into contact with the animal for brucellosis, Mackay said.
The case has sparked some old controversies in Montana, igniting divisions between Montana's two rival cattle groups and groups that say it's time to stop blaming wild bison alone for America's brucellosis problem.
Darrell Geist, habitat coordinator for the Buffalo Field Campaign in West Yellowstone, which advocates protecting the Yellowstone herd, said there's no evidence thus far that either of Montana's brucellosis cases were tied to bison.
"We slaughtered 3,600 wild bison and it didn't protect Montana's brucellosis-free status," he said.
Rachel Iadicicco, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service, said tests are being run on the diseased heifer to determine if the cow got the disease from other cattle, elk or bison.
Similar tests were run on the Bridger cases, she said. Those showed that the cattle didn't get the disease from other livestock, but they could not determine if the animals got the disease from bison or elk.
The Montana Cattlemen's Association and the Montana Stockgrowers Association continued their debate Monday over whether Montana should have tried to protect the majority of the state's ranchers from the brucellosis problem by sequestering a small zone around Yellowstone National Park.