Wolves, Brucellosis, & Elk

Wolves have blown elk off western Wyoming’s elk feedgrounds on numerous occasions – it’s something that we’ve come to expect with Wyoming’s protected wolf population. Jim and I learned about the 19 elk that had been killed in one night by a wolf pack on an elk feedground in the northern portion of the county before we left for a getaway with the bliss of little internet or cell phone access for three days.

We were stunned to return home yesterday to learn that the surplus kill on the McNeel feedground had made international news. People seemed to be going bonkers in all directions, including these views:

· kill all the wolves because they are killing all the elk;

· the domesticated elk no longer have wild instincts and stand around on feedlots, so it’s no wonder they were killed;

· it must have been hunters (poachers) because wolves don’t surplus kill.

I view most of the comments as oversimplified nonsense, put forth with little understanding of complexities of the situation.

Elk Feedgrounds
Elk are held at artificially high numbers in western Wyoming through a series of 22 state-managed elk feedgrounds in Sublette, Lincoln and Teton counties. The feedgrounds are located on private, state or federal land, and a total of about 13,000 elk are provided supplemental feed in the form of hay each winter. Elk feedgrounds are generally closed to human access – with the exception of the elk feeder, who is a contract employee in charge of feeding hay with a team of horses or with a tractor.

There are only a couple of elk feedgrounds that can be seen from a state highway – these state-managed elk feedgrounds are not like the National Elk Refuge where you can pay to ride among the elk in a horse-drawn sleigh. The elk are not domesticated animals that have lost their wild senses, and they can be easily spooked off the feedgrounds by disturbance.

Elk and bison that inhabit the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem serve as a wild reservoir of brucellosis – a highly contagious bacterial disease that can be transmitted to humans, and cattle. In humans, it causes undulate fever, and in cattle, it causes contagious abortions. There has been a national program to eradicate brucellosis from livestock since the early 1930s. It’s why milk is pasteurized, and why federal officials long maintained a test-and-slaughter program for our nation’s cattle herds. The brucella organism is also classified as an agent of bio-terrorism.

Brucellosis is a stealth disease that can hide in an animal’s reproductive tract for years without detection. All cattle producers in this region vaccinate (and boost) against brucellosis, but with an efficacy rate of 70%, the vaccine only provides partial protection. We’ve watched our neighbors here in Sublette and Teton counties go through quarantine and whole-herd slaughter because of brucellosis transmission from wintering elk to their cattle. The thought of watching your entire herd sent to slaughter is too horrific for most ranchers to contemplate.

Closing feedgrounds
Most of the elk feedgrounds were established in the 1940s and 1950s to deal with starving elk in bad winter conditions, and to keep them away from stored hay used by ranchers to provide winter feed for cattle on private land.

To close the feedgrounds would be to face the damage caused by dispersing elk that will seek food elsewhere, as they are involved in collisions with vehicles on roadways, move to cattle feedlines and damage stored hay, transmitting disease to cattle, and the anticipated elk population reduction that will follow. So the Wyoming Game & Fish Department has focused on starting feeding later in the winter, ending feeding as early as possible, and conducting habitat improvements to provide better forage conditions for elk off the feedgrounds. The agency is attempting to minimize its feeding program. If it were as simple an issue as closing the feedgrounds, it would have been done years ago. Maintenance of the feedgrounds perpetuates the disease among elk, but spreading diseased elk across the landscape isn’t a good option either. Meanwhile, research for more effective methods to reduce the risks posed by brucellosis continues.

Wolves & Elk
Most western Wyoming elk herds are near population objectives, but some wolf advocates do not believe that wolves impact big game herds. Which is ironic, since the justification for the wolf reintroduction program was based on the need to control the park’s overabundant elk population, which it has. Yellowstone park’s northern range elk herd numbered 17,000 elk in 1995, the year wolves were released in the park. This elk herd shrunk by 2015 to just 1,130 elk inside the park, and 3,714 elk north of the park. At the same time, the grizzly bear population in the region has expanded. Predators have indeed impacted this elk population, just as they do other populations. In localized areas, the problem can be severe.

Surplus killing
Surplus killing involves a predator killing more animals than it can consume and, in contrast to those who say this is a “rare” event, it is exhibited by a variety of predators large and small around the world. From a fox in a chicken coop, to a wolf pack hitting an elk herd, it’s normal predatory behavior. Not everyday, but not rare.

A similar kill to the McNeel case took place on a Big Piney-area feedground in 2003, and there were numerous cases in the last 10 years in which wolves harassed the elk to the extent that the elk “quit” certain feedgrounds altogether. The 19 dead elk on the McNeel feedground included two adult cow elk and 17 calves – that is, yearling elk, not newborn calves. (When wolves killed beef cattle on a private ranch not far from McNeel earlier in the month, some assumed that the five calves were small animals, but they were 500-pound calves by this time of year.)

Surplus kills occur on both wild and domestic herds. A pack of wolves left a pasture of 120 Rambouillet rams dead in Montana in 2009. We’ve had surplus kills by wolves on our place too. And by a black bear, and by a mountain lion.

Wolves in the Northern Rockies reached biological recovery goals more than a decade ago, but are still under federal protection in Wyoming. Even if the state were in charge now, it’s questionable whether any action would be taken against the wolves on the McNeel feedground. But at least state officials would have options if wolves were under state jurisdiction. Right now, there aren’t any.

Those who believe the Wyoming Game & Fish will manage the species to extinction give credence to fear-mongers who thrive on controversy. They point to the fact that Wyoming would allow wolves to be killed in two-thirds of the state as proof that state officials hate this predator. In reality, the wolf population occurs in the western third of the state in an area larger than that designated as necessary in the original wolf recovery plan – and that’s where wolf harvest will be regulated and controlled. That Wyoming doesn’t want wolf population expansion to the remainder of the state is no surprise, and was never on the table as needed for wolf recovery.

Some wolf advocates do not want any wolves killed for any reason. I understand that, but they aren’t the people who experience negative impacts from wolf activity.

I don’t seek eradication of the wolf, even though wolves sometimes kill our family’s livestock. But I would like to live in an ecosystem where this species is actually managed, and I won’t have to feel jeopardized by an action I may take when involved in a conflict with the species.

Spring, and Shared Range

Spring has arrived to our western Wyoming rangelands. We’ve already had temperatures in the 40s and snowmelt, with the resulting visit from our old friend mud – which we haven’t experienced for the longest time in our decade or so of drought. It’s been a pleasure to have to throw the truck in four-wheel drive to get in the driveway. No belly-aching from this corner.

The sandhill cranes have begun to arrive, with their crane calls in morning meadows our true sign of a change of season. We’ll (hopefully) have a few more snowstorms through early May, and I’ll be doing a rain dance for a wet spring to bring this arid range fully out of its dormancy.

The sandhill cranes come close to the house, and follow the sheep flock, nourishing themselves on scattered grain from winter feedlines we fork onto the snow.

Pronghorn antelope herds share this range with the sheep, in larger numbers during the winter months, and less in the heat of summer when they migrate to other areas for grazing. The sheep and the guardian dogs are accustomed to their presence as a part of the landscape in which we live.

It’s this time of year when the wildlife migrations begin, as snowmelt allows big game herds to move from lower elevation desert country and begin to follow the receding snow to the high country. Migratory domestic sheep herds will soon follow, using many of the same trails. Millions of hooves have traveled these paths, for eons. Here’s a glimpse of small herds of pronghorn antelope and elk lining out as they trail back north, to the Wind River Mountains.

Spring has arrived indeed.

Testing elk for brucellosis

Today I accompanied the Wyoming Game and Fish Department to photograph the process of testing elk for brucellosis. The testing program, in its fifth and final year, takes place at three elk feedgrounds on the western flank of the Wind River Mountains. I’ve covered the testing program every year for various media.

The photo above shows the elk trap – a huge wooden corral setup, at the Muddy Creek elk feedground.

Brucellosis is an incurable highly contagious disease associated with the reproductive tract, so only adult female elk are tested. All bulls and calves are released (although eartags are placed in the calves’ ears for future identification if needed).

The photo above shows the chutes elk are processed in. After being moved from a large round corral, they are pushed into alleyways, and groups of about six are separated into paneled boxes, and eventually sorted into individual chutes, where they can be “squeezed” and handled.

Blood samples are drawn from a vein in the neck. If the individual elk is excessively nervous, a blindfold is used to help calm her. I liked how this elk remained rather calm, but never took her eye off the biologist working on her.

A calf is released from the chute after an eartag was inserted into its ear.

These adult females have all been processed and will be held overnight in the trap, awaiting their fate. Each blood sample has a number that corresponds to the rubber tags around the cow’s necks. Animals that test positive for brucellosis will be sent to slaughter, and the remainder will be released back onto the feedground.

The test-and-removal program is a five-year effort aimed at reducing the presence of the disease brucellosis in elk herds along the western front of the Wind River Range. Brucellosis is a contagious disease that causes abortions in hoofed animals and is present in elk and bison in the Yellowstone region. Brucellosis transmitted by Muddy Creek feedground elk to a neighboring cattle herd in 2003 resulted in the slaughter of the entire cattle herd. Several other cattle herds were later destroyed for the same reason, and transmission from elk was indicated in all cases.

Brucellosis can also be transmitted to humans – right off the top of my head I can name five people I personally know who have had it (three vets and two ranchers). It’s a horrible disease, and as many of you know, is subject to control efforts throughout the world. Some hospitals in Central Asia have entire wards dedicated to treating patients with this disease.

Brucellosis seroprevalence rates in elk using the Muddy Creek feedground have progressively decreased from 37 percent to seven percent in the first four years of the program.