POWELL — Biologists at the Wyoming Game and Fish Department want fresh samples of blood from elk harvests to monitor brucellosis — and they’re having a hard time getting them.
Each year about 11,000 blood collection kits are mailed to recipients of limited quota elk tags.
Less than a third are returned to the department. And of the 32 percent returned, only about 60 percent of those kits are deemed usable.
Now, the department is offering incentives. Partnering with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Vortex, Maven and the Wyoming chapter of the Wildlife Society, the Game and Fish is going to raffle off some sweet hunting gear.
It’s part of an effort to “recognize hunter’s contributions to brucellosis monitoring and encourage more participation in the program.”
“The public can really help us just by harvesting elk and getting prevalence data from those animals,” said Eric Maichak, Big Horn Basin brucellosis habitat biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish department.
The effort is important: The prevalence of brucellosis is on the rise in Wyoming and, considering the expensive, decades-long efforts the U.S. made to rid the cattle industry of the disease, participation is in everybody’s best interests.
Brucellosis was originally spread from domestic cattle to wildlife, Maichak said. The eradication effort, which began in the 1950s, cost incredible amounts of money to achieve.
Finally, in the ’80s, the country eradicated the bacterial disease from livestock, but wildlife like elk and bison still carry brucellosis; they can transmit it back to livestock as well as humans.
Brucellosis causes animals to abort fetuses. The disease runs rampant in the womb until an abortion is the result.
Contact with the fetus is how the disease spreads among elk, bison and livestock — and why it’s so important to keep the animals separated during the late winter months. It’s also why there are no late elk hunts in the state.
“The fetus is swimming with bacteria and is highly infectious. If you have a bunch of animals that are always together the odds [of infection] go way up,” Maichak said.
Brucellosis’ prevalence in feed ground areas, where elk congregate, is much higher than anywhere else in the state.
Feed grounds were historically started to prevent winter losses of elk in the Jackson area, Maichak said. Then they began to serve different reasons.
“Over time, feed grounds were used to stop damage [to private property]. And then they were used to stop commingling with livestock to reduce the transmission of the disease,” Maichak said.
Elk near feed grounds in western Wyoming have a 25 percent chance of testing positive for the disease. But a much higher percentage have tested positive for exposure to the disease.
It’s hard to tell if bison and elk have brucellosis, Maichak said.
“There is no good way to tell, at least outwardly, if your elk has the disease,” he said.
About 60 percent of bison in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem test positive to exposure to the disease.
Ranchers in the three states bordering the park are concerned bison leaving the park will infect their livestock.
The issue is politically challenging. Bison hunts have proved unpopular with many. The park’s culling of bison — now numbering in the thousands — is equally unpopular, but as the population has reached what is considered the carrying capacity for the species, wildlife managers say they have little choice.
State veterinarians work with Game and Fish biologists to track the spread of the disease and educate the public.
“The Livestock Board and the Game and Fish have a very positive working relationship on teaming up to try to prevent cattle and elk from commingling,” said Dr. Thach Winslow, Wyoming assistant state field veterinarian, adding, “We have a huge vested interest in elk and brucellosis management.”
Though transmission to humans is extremely rare, the highest risk of contracting brucellosis is while field dressing an elk.
“It hides in the lymph nodes, and if I kill an elk in December, the likelihood of me having contact [with the bacteria] is minuscule,” said Winslow. “It will go to the fetus and replicate like crazy in the third trimester. It’s one of the reasons we don’t have late hunts. We don’t want hunters exposed to elk that have raging infections.”
Maichak added that, “February to June is the most critical time period.”
Last year, a single hunter in the Dubois area was diagnosed with brucellosis. The hunter was infected during the 2016 hunting season, but it took until 2017 to identify the disease.
Brucellosis manifests itself in flu-like symptoms. If untreated, the bacterial infection can move to the lymphatic system and become debilitating.
Aging and cooking the meat takes away the risk. The Game and Fish suggests wearing gloves, using a clean blade and avoiding contact as much as possible with the reproductive tract of harvested elk and bison.
Game and Fish personnel work hard to keep wildlife and livestock separate for about half the year, in efforts that are time-intensive — such as moving elk on foot.
Educating ranchers, hunters and the public is a crucial component of their efforts.
Hunters, hikers, shed collectors and even wildlife viewers can help with the issue, Winslow said.
Elk are easily spooked. When they come into contact with humans during the height of the transmission period, they are often chased to lower areas, where ranches exists.
“It’s strongly speculated, especially in the Meeteetse area, with horn hunters going up early — even when spotting them to see where they are before they shed — they’re driving them down where the cattle are,” Winslow said.
Any sort of human contact, even with hikers or people walking their dogs, can move elk into unwanted areas, Maichak said. The disturbances also force herds to gather, thinking they are safer in numbers.
“We’re trying to avoid anything that would cause concentration [of elk],” Maichak said.
Other issues have contributed to the spread of the disease. Even glasses of milk can play into the discussion, as the disease is passed through milk.
Pasteurization took care of the problem for humans, but there are new concerns, Winslow said.
“The latest kick for all natural, organic and people drinking whole milk has made it a problem again,” Winslow said.
Beef imports are also a concern. While the U.S. has eradicated the disease in the cattle industry, other countries that provide beef here have problems with brucellosis in their livestock.
“There’s a lot of money to be made exporting cattle. The best beef in the world is produced in the United States. But people here want to buy cheaper beef, so we import it,” Winslow said. “If you own a feed lot in Texas and you can buy Mexican cattle cheaper than cattle here, we call that free enterprise.”
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