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Elk

State may have to re-evaluate surveillance area boundaries

Riverton – Surveys recently completed by the Wyoming Game and Fish (G&F) with the help of hunters submitting blood samples have revealed areas around Cody where the elk populations have a 10 percent or higher seroprevalance rate for brucellosis.
    “Previously, sampling indicated that elk that did not winter on the feedgrounds had a two to three percent seroprevalence rate if they had brucellosis at all,” says Wyoming State Veterinarian Walt Cook. The areas where the higher incidence has been found do not include elk feedgrounds.
    “We found an infected elk fetus last May and after that I had a meeting with producers up there. There was a lot of interest and concern surrounding the increase in seroprevalence in the elk in those areas including the Clark’s Fork and the Gooseberry,” says Assistant State Veterinarian Jim Logan. G&F asks hunters to submit blood samples for testing on an annual basis and this year focused their work around the region where the fetus was discovered.
    Cook says they haven’t had an opportunity to fully digest the G&F findings and determine what needs to be done to protect the industry in areas adjacent to the elk herds in question.  He and Dr. Logan will be meeting with Wyoming Game and Fish Department and USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service staff to evaluate the situation.
    “I am definitely concerned about it,” says Logan. “If we’re seeing an increase in the elk seroprevalance outside the feedground areas and we have a rough winter we’re going to have elk coming down on the cattle feedlines.” In other areas of the state where elk feeding occurs he says the feedgrounds serve as a tool to separate elk and cattle.
    Testing now occurs on all test-eligible females at the state’s livestock auction markets with exceptions made for cattle destined for slaughter and approved feedlots. Test-eligible females in the defined surveillance area – Sublette and Teton counties, the northern half of Lincoln County and the western third of Fremont County – are also being tested prior to change of ownership or shipment across county lines. Ranch-specific herd plans – now completed by 158 producers, 48 of which are in the surveillance area – do provide a few exceptions based on an individual risk assessment.
    “My gut feeling is that we may have to increase the size of the area to encompass where the seroprevalance is increasing. I don’t, at this point, know what the exact extent of the increase would be,” says Logan. “We already have quite a few producers in that area with herd plans pretty much as a result of the elk fetus. Originally the surveillance area was six counties so a lot of producers in that area already have herd plans because of that.” Park and Hot Springs counties are the two most likely to be affected by any changes.
    Any changes in the surveillance area, says Cook, would require that the Wyoming Livestock Board’s Chapter 2 brucellosis rules be opened. “That could take up to a year by the time we completed the process,” he says noting the opportunity for public comment.  “We need to determine distribution of seropositive elk.  If we find that this is a localized problem we may be able to deal with it by working with individual producers, but if it is widespread, we may need to look at rule changes.”
    Undoubtedly, opening of those regulations would include a discussion as to whether or not the testing of all test-eligible females at the state’s livestock auction markets should continue.
    “We test an awful lot of cattle that are hundreds of miles from the elk and wildlife problem and you can’t help but think we’re wasting a lot of money,” says Cook. “We are bringing up to the Livestock Board that we should be doing something that would be a little more cost-effective.”
    “The main reason I see it as a valid thing to continue to some degree, doing testing on cattle out of risk areas or surveillance area, is I think it’s important to protect our own producers in Wyoming so they don’t end up buying an infected animal and to protect the marketability of all the producers in Wyoming,” says Logan noting the implications to interstate commerce of the state’s cattle.
     “We’ve been getting a lot of pressure legislatively asking why we’re spending money testing cattle from outside of the risk area that don’t have any risk at all,” says Logan. “It’s a very legitimate question. It’s difficult to say there’s a purpose. We could put more money into the area of concern and do a better job of prevention and detection if we were to minimize the amount of testing on cattle coming from outside the area.”
    The Wyoming Livestock Board can be reached at 307-777-7515. Jennifer Womack is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

As a result of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) voluntary hunter surveillance program, brucellosis was identified in two elk harvested in the Big Horn Mountains.

“We have now identified cases of brucellosis in elk outside of the designated surveillance area (DSA),” comments Wyoming Livestock Board (WLSB) Director Leanne Correll. “There is no livestock brucellosis outside of the DSA and no indication of cattle exposure, but there could be impacts for livestock producers.”

The elk, a cow and bull, were harvested in Hunt Area 40 in late October 2012.

“At this point, we don’t know how or where these elk were exposed to brucellosis,” said WGFD Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik. “We will increase our sampling for brucellosis in this area during the 2013 elk hunting season to begin to get a better idea of how prevalent the disease might be.”

“We want to be as proactive as possible on deciding how to handle this,” says Correll.

Impacts

Now that brucellosis has been identified in wildlife outside the DSA, Correll notes that the brucellosis coordination team, WLSB and WGFD have begun working to address the situation accordingly. 

“There could be consequences from our trading partner states, so we’ve got to proactively look at what to do,” Correll says. “First of all, we need to protect our Wyoming livestock producers outside the DSA.”

While currently there have not been any red flags from trading partner states that would indicate trade restrictions, Correll notes that they have worked to contact surrounding state veterinarians.

“This certainly could cause our trading partner states to put additional restrictions on Wyoming livestock,” she explains. “They have had concerns about bringing brucellosis into their states. We want to have these conversations up front, and we will continue to share information.”

Additionally, Wyoming State Veterinarian Jim Logan will be attending the Western States Animal Health Association meeting during the week of March 18 where they will be able to get additional information on the concerns of trading partner states.

Assessing risk

Correll notes that the WLSB has begun to gather information to assess the risk of transmission of brucellosis to livestock.

In starting initial assessment, Correll explains that they are working to identify where elk move and migrate in the Big Horn Mountains in relation to where cattle are during high-risk exposure periods.

“The highest risk time of transmission is between Feb. 15 and June 15,” says Correll. “We are looking at where the elk are in the winter and where the cattle are at that time.”

Though Correll notes that many of the grazing allotments are late summer and early fall allotments, there may be little chance of commingling between elk and cattle.

Making a plan

After more information is gathered based on the risks for transmission, Correll notes that they will begin to determine a list of options to address the situation.

“Expansion of the DSA would have impacts that are much greater than we want to see,” she says. 

“Our approach will be to minimize impacts to livestock producers while proactively conducting risk assessments and determining surveillance testing needs,” adds Correll.

Other potential options include increased livestock surveillance testing.

In their strategies, she further notes that they are striving to minimize impacts to livestock producers while also minimizing risk of transmission of brucellosis to cattle.

“No decision will be made without lots of discussion with the Brucellosis Coordination Team, WLSB, WGFD and producers,” she emphasizes. “Working with producers is always a positive thing, and that is where we want to start – by having conversations.”

Correll also notes that Logan will also work with local veterinarians on risk assessments and will also be working with producers.

“We are looking to do more herd plans to determine risks on a producer-by-producer basis,” she adds. “Based on the risk assessments, we have been developing herd plans in the DSA.”

Overall, the WLSB is striving to achieve a proactive approach in dealing with the disease discovery.

Public meetings

Because of the potential impacts of brucellosis on area livestock producers, the WGFD and WLSB are working together to establish a meeting to provide information. 

While details are not yet available, a public meeting will be held on April 4 in the Greybull area.

“We will get the information to livestock producers and other interested folks when we have it set,” WGFD Public Information Officer Eric Keszler comments.

WGFD and WLSB personnel will be available at the meeting to answer questions, provide education and get more information. 

Additionally, the Brucellosis Coordination Team will be meeting on April 3 in Lander to discuss handling the issue.

Correll adds, “We really appreciate the efforts of the WGFD and the Governor’s Office, as well as the collaboration we have with them, in addressing this situation.”

“Finding brucellosis outside the DSA is concerning to all of us,” says Correll, “but we have had very positive comments in response to how proactively we handle brucellosis in Wyoming.”

WGFD Surveillance programs

Recent cases of brucellosis identified in elk outside of the Designated Surveillance Area (DSA) were found as a result of Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s (WGFD) voluntary surveillance program. 

WGFD Public Information Officer Eric Keszler says, “We mail kits to hunters in certain areas each year. They have a test tube and instructions on how to collect blood samples.”

Keszler notes that they send sample kits to hunters within the DSA each year, but the rest of the state is sampled on a rotating basis.

“We do surveillance in the DSA every year to try to keep an eye on what the prevalence rates are in that area, because we know brucellosis is established,” Keszler explains. “The rest of the state is divided into quarters, and we do surveillance in a different quarter each year.”

With the discovery of brucellosis in Hunt Area 40 in the Big Horn Mountains, he mentions that WGFD will increase surveillance in that area to attempt to better understand the prevalence of the disease.

“A big key in this situation will be doing our surveillance next fall to see how widespread the disease might be,” Keszler says, also mentioning that working with the Wyoming Livestock Board and producers will be important to understand next steps. 

Wyoming Livestock Board Director Leanne Correll adds, “We really don’t have enough information right now to assess the actual risk.”

To learn more about brucellosis in Wyoming, visit wyomingbrucellosis.com.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Wyoming’s tradition of  wintertime elk feeding – including at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson – coupled with Montanans’ urgent fears of the fatal chronic wasting disease (CWD) decimating its deer, moose and elk led to a request from Wyoming’s neighbor to the north to change its ways.

In November, hunters south of Billings, Mont. took two infected mule deer shortly after Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks released its draft CWD surveillance plan with hopes of limiting the fatal neurological disease. It is not yet known how CWD is transmitted – much less how to stop it – but researchers know it is caused by small, inorganic, indestructible mutated proteins called “prions.”

Although the feedground issue is argued from every angle, another winter is underway. Elk are gathered at the refuge and contracted feeders distribute hay at many Wyoming Game and Fish feedgrounds. Thirteen of 22 state feedgrounds are in Sublette County.

Montana is sending clear messages to the Wyoming Game and Fish Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to close down elk feedgrounds and the elk refuge to prevent the “catastrophic” spread of CWD, fatal to deer but not yet devastating to elk.

Montana resolution

In February 2017, the Montana Senate unanimously approved Joint Resolution No. 8, calling for the end of “unnaturally dense clusters” of elk at the National Elk Refuge in Jackson and western Wyoming’s feedgrounds. The Montana House did not address it.

The resolution stated that feedgrounds create “artificially high populations of elk,” which all parties agree could help transmit wildlife diseases, including brucellosis  and CWD.

Copies of the Senate resolution were to be sent to the Secretary of the Interior, FWS director, National Elk Refuge (NER) manager, Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) director and Gov. Matt Mead.

Montana wildlife commission

On Dec. 7, Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission President Dan Vermillion sent a letter to Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President Keith Culver.

“We respect the fact that how Wyoming manages its affairs is up to Wyoming,” wrote Vermillion. “However, Montana’s ability to combat CWD will depend on decisions Wyoming makes about its wildlife management. Over the long-term, the feedgrounds make your wildlife populations less healthy, less stable and much more vulnerable to a catastrophic disease event.”

Culver acknowledged each commissioner received the letter, adding, “There are no plans at this time to put this topic on our meeting agenda.”

He invited the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission to attend a Wyoming meeting “to discuss their concerns” but has not heard back, he said.

“Wyoming and Montana have a history of working closely together on wildlife issues for many decades,” Culver said. “We value their partnership and cooperation and are looking forward to meeting with them.”

Finding a balance

“Just like anything we deal with in our state where we have multiple different needs and multiple different interests, everything has to be considered,” WGFD Chief Game Warden Brian Nesvik said of feeding elk. “We, in our state, recognize the fact our partnership with livestock is extremely important to both wildlife and the livestock industry.”

Agriculture owns much of the private land, and he said, “It’s very interconnected. The very narrow approach is not in wildlife’s best interests.”

“But we have not documented CWD on any feedgrounds. I struggle to find the link between our feedgrounds and CWD in the state of Montana,” Nesvik said, adding that free-ranging elk also get and spread diseases.

Adapting programs

Culver commended WGFD employees for always adapting their feeding programs.

“WGFD has done a good job of trying to minimize crowding of elk while still minimizing co-mingling with livestock,” he said, calling the department “proactive.”

“The recommendation to begin supplemental feeding in a given year is based on criteria that are mutually agreed upon between the NER and WGFD,” Moehring explained. “These criteria state that when average available forage declines to 300 pounds per acre at key index sites, supplemental feeding is typically warranted, but feeding start dates can also be influenced by elk behavior or other factors.”

“NER and WGFD staff have begun forage monitoring for the winter and will jointly develop a recommendation for when to begin feeding. Over the course of the past 10 years, feeding has typically begun in late January,” he added.

Future questions

Faced with the question of whether supplemental feed could be eliminated at NER, Moehrin said, “Feeding could be eliminated if it were no longer needed, such as if the overall Jackson elk herd and NER wintering herd objectives are met, if there is sufficient natural forage to sustain them and if public support is maintained,” Moehring said.

In developing the 2017 Bison and Elk Management Plan (BEMP) at NER, not feeding at NER was a very unpopular option with the public.

“A decision to end feeding altogether outside of the context of reaching objectives would likely require additional National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) work because that is not a stated goal of the BEMP,” Moehring added.

Future plans

FWS and refuge officials, coordinating with WGFD and Grand Teton National Park, are in the process of drafting its “step-down plan” for supplemental feeding as called for in the 2007 BEMP, according to Moehring.

“It is the ‘structured framework for progressively transitioning from intensive supplemental winter feeding’ that is called for in the BEMP,” he said. “The plan identifies methods for incrementally reducing the number of ‘elk-fed days,’ while carefully monitoring winter mortality and limiting off-refuge wildlife conflicts.”

The step-down plan is still in the works as a draft and has not yet been released. As of Jan. 11, supplemental feeding had not started at the National Elk Refuge.

Joy Ufford is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and journalist for the Pinedale Roundup and Sublette Examiner. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Pinedale – “If we can lower the prevalence of brucellosis in the elk, we can reduce the risk of transmission of the disease from elk to cattle,” says brucellosis biologist Brandon Scurlock of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“About 22 percent of elk that use feed grounds show antibodies to brucellosis, meaning they have been exposed to the bacteria – they don’t necessarily have the disease,” says Scurlock. “In the northwest, we’re seeing an increasing trend in the native wintering elk, but in terms of feed ground elk, the sero-prevalence has been stable or slightly decreasing.”

When Wyoming lost its brucellosis-free status, research was implemented for both wildlife and cattle. One pilot project and top recommendation of the Brucellosis Coordination Team was the test and slaughter project, which is in the monitoring stage right now.

“They recommended that we conduct the project on all three feed grounds in the Pinedale elk herd unit,” explains Scurlock. “We erected large portable corral traps on the feedgrounds and tested as many yearling and older female elk as we could capture. Those testing seropositive were slaughtered at a USDA facility in Idaho.”

Following slaughter, the meat was returned to Wyoming and distributed to the Salvation Army.

The five-year project began in 2006 and recently concluded, with 2011 being the first year that no elk were slaughtered.

“It was effective at reducing seroprevalence in the population,” says Scurlock. “At the Muddy Creek feed ground, seroprevalence dropped from 37 percent to five percent in the course of five years.”

“However, it was a pilot project that the task force recommended,” continued Scurlock. “It cost over $1 million to implement and is likely not very feasible on a broad scale. We did learn some valuable information and saw prevalence decrease, so we are monitoring the elk now.”

Monitoring efforts will continue for several years to determine if the test and slaughter project will provide long-term results, or if the decrease in prevalence is simply a short-term solution.

Scurlock also mentions that elk are vaccinated with Strain 19 of the bacteria to help them fight the Brucella infections better.

The vaccine doesn’t prevent infection, but rather works to prevent abortions and, as a result, reduces transmission of brucellosis.

Scurlock comments, “We have been monitoring the efficacy of Strain 19 vaccination program since 1989 by bleeding elk and looking at the serology.”

A new method of monitoring vaccination efficacy is through the use of vaginal implant transmitters (VITs). VITs are implanted into pregnant elk.

“When those transmitters are expelled, you can track abortions and normal births,” says WGFD wildlife disease specialist Hank Edwards.  

“We started using the VITs to see if there is a difference in abortion rate between vaccinated and unvaccinated elk,” explains Scurlock. “It doesn’t appear to have an affect on seroprevalence – vaccinated animals have the same prevalence as unvaccinated animals, but we are trying to see if there is a difference in abortion rates.”

Scurlock further explains that the vaccine is expensive, and vaccinating elk is a labor-intensive process.

“We don’t want to continue vaccinating unless we see a benefit,” says Scurlock.

Edwards adds that some work is being done to improve vaccines for elk.

“One of the research projects going on at the Sybille Research Facility is to determine which adjuvants work best with elk and the vaccine,” says Edwards. “An adjuvant is something added to a vaccine to enhance the immune response. This project is being done in conjunction with Steve Olson at the National Animal Disease Center.”

Other research is being done to develop a better vaccine. The opening of the Bio-Safety Level 3 lab in the Wyoming State Vet Laboratory will facilitate continuing research. This new lab will allow research with the Brucella bacteria directly.

VITs are also used to determine the location and timings of abortions. In combination with GPS collars, WGFD biologists are able to look at elk contact with aborted fetuses.

“We are trying to see when and where the elk are aborting so we can develop management strategies to reduce chances of contact with the fetus,” says Scurlock. “We have been doing that since 2006 on 17 of 23 feeding grounds.”

In a “Target Feedground Project,” the WGFD is also using flexible management strategies and changing feeding styles to reduce contact with aborted fetuses.

“The most contact occurs when a fetus is expelled right on the feed line, as compared to off a feed line,” says Scurlock. “We determined that using experimental culture-negative fetuses and game cameras.”

By identifying that less contact is made away from feed lines, Scurlock notes that the use of low-density feeding will reduce population density when elk are on feed and should reduce contact and transmission of the bacterium.

The same project has identified that most VITs are expelled in March and April, allowing the WGFD some other management options.

“We are looking at truncating the feeding season,” says Scurlock. “If we can get elk off feed grounds earlier in the year, by February for instance, they won’t be concentrated and we can reduce brucellosis that way.”

Brucellosis on feed grounds and in areas of high-density elk is perhaps more predictable than the occurrence of the disease in and around the Cody and Meeteetse areas.   In cooperation with Montana State University, a research project is in progress with the goal of identifying why brucellosis has established in the area.

“Angela Brennan with MSU has been working for the last two years or better trying to figure out what has changed in the Cody region that has allowed brucellosis become established,” says Edwards. “We have some theories, and are in the process of looking at that question, but we can’t definitively point our finger at any one cause – we don’t have any concrete answers yet.”

Saige Albert is assistant editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Lander – During the 2011 interim, a subcommittee of the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee of the Wyoming Legislature looked into large game damage to agriculture and drafted a bill to take before the 2012 Budget Session.
    Ultimately, the bill was not introduced during the most recent session, and challenges related to large game and agriculture are again an interim topic for the committee in 2012.
    “We felt it was important to revisit the issue,” said Representative Glenn Moniz of House District 46 in Albany County, who led the effort last year, at the May 8 meeting of the Joint Ag Committee in Lander. “We do have a draft bill that focuses on issues the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) already has the ability to address – like the taking of elk in areas that are a problem. We feel that, although they have the authority, for whatever reason they may or may not be doing it.”
    Moniz mentioned the biggest challenge – landowners who don’t allow hunting on their properties, and how that problem continues to perplex both the WGFD and the ag industry.
    “From our point of view, it is about game damage, because of the damage to forage resources, but I don’t think the answer lies in addressing the damage issue,” said Wyoming Stock Growers Association Executive Vice President Jim Magagna. “We could strengthen the rules that require the Game and Fish to pay more for damages, but from a livestock owner’s perspective, we just want to be able to use a reasonable percentage of our grass.”
    He continued that the answer needs to lie not in how to pay for damages, but how to manage big game to prevent overpopulation.
HMAP sees success
    WGFD Deputy Director John Emmerich agreed, saying, “We need to somehow find a solution in getting access to the areas where there are refuges, and addressing individual ranches that don’t allow access.”
    He mentioned the Hunter Management Access Program (HMAP), which started two years ago, and the fact that people can now buy more than two elk licenses.
    “We will issue an emergency regulation after July 1 to set up a rulemaking process that will identify areas in the state that need it, and we’ll take those to the Commission for approval, so we’ll have that tool available to hunters in a lot of the problem areas this fall,” he explained of the additional licenses.
    Speaking of HMAP, Emmerich said it has provided the most success in getting to landowners who haven’t allowed access to open their land for hunting.
    “The first place we tested was in Hunt Area 7 between Glenrock and Douglas, and we hired a temp who worked full-time during hunting season, and was there every day, working directly with hunters and landowners,” he said. “In that area, the program split the big herds and pushed them to other areas where there was access already.”
    The same program was implemented in Areas 61, 62 and 63 in Fall 2011 on Meeteetse Creek and the Wood River, and the WGFD hired two individuals who worked full-time with landowners and hunters in that area.
Discussions continue
    “We have to accept the fact that a lot of the problem exists because of individual landowners who choose not to allow any hunting on their land. We would strongly resist anything that would force people to allow public on their land to hunt wildlife, but we need to incentivize people through some means,” said Magagna. “How do we enhance and encourage more landowners to allow some managed hunting on their land to control these populations?”
    “We’re committed to continue to hire the temp individuals to manage hunts, and we’ve had some success in getting the landowners to open up areas,” stated Emmerich. “We’re willing to sit down and continue the dialogue to find new ways of doing it. The tools are there – the key is getting the individual landowners that don’t allow access to open up. We need to keep pushing hard, and I think we can get it done. We will continue to talk about possible options, but I’m not sure we need legislation to move this forward. I think we’ve had good success, and need some time to see if we can accomplish it with the tools we’ve put in place.”
    “It’s a very important issue, and we encourage the committee to allow this discussion to go forward,” said Magagna. “I would encourage us, together with Game and Fish, to come up with something to bring to your September meeting.”
    Ultimately, the Joint Ag Committee voted to move the subject forward. The Legislative Services Office will continue to work on drafting a bill, and Representative Moniz will continue his leadership in the discussions.
    Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..