BCT considers feedgrounds’ risk assessmentsWritten by Joy Ufford
Pinedale – Wyoming’s Brucellosis Coordination Team (BCT) discussed a number of possible means to reduce the disease’s transmission between elk and cattle at its April 13 meeting in Pinedale.
Research projects, affected herd updates, budget crunches and new data were shared by Wyoming, Montana and Idaho agencies, and the daylong meeting closed with a call for the BCT to move forward.
Studies and updates
Montana State Vet Eric Liske presented study updates, as did its wildlife agency, and Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) biologists presented data from elk hunters’ surveillance and GPS studies in Wyoming.
A research project led by University of Wyoming’s Noah Hull brought exciting news that a test is getting closer to being able to distinguish former vaccine Strain 19 titers from the actual disease.
Strain 19 was found to be very effective for cattle but also produced “false positives” in blood tests, so it was dropped. Finding a reliable vaccine and improved tests are high on the list of accomplishments the BCT encouraged.
A top recommendation from the Governor’s Brucellosis Coordination Team was for WGFD to update its brucellosis management action plans (BMAPs), according to WGFD Brucellosis Program Supervisor Brandon Scurlock, who released the top 10 at a public meeting March 24 in Pinedale.
“We met with producers and partners in late December and asked how to better reduce transmission from elk to cattle and elk to elk,” he said.
Those comments were integrated into the BMAPs that Scurlock presented at the BCT’s April 13 meeting in Pinedale.
The 10 elements are feedground locations, elk population reduction, feedground phase-out, reducing feed season length, habitat enhancement, fencing, acquisitions and easements, test and slaughter, vaccine investigation and mapping areas of brucellosis risk.
Infected cow elk miscarriages or abortions peak in March, April and May, which overlaps with concentrated elk feeding to keep elk from mixing with livestock. At several feedgrounds, seasons are shortened and hay is scattered for low-density feeding. Another tool is allowing scavengers to clean up the feedgrounds.
Elk are traditionally fed on one or two long lines that create hotspots for brucellosis transmission, he said. Fed farther apart in a checkerboard pattern, studies show elk contact with fetuses can drop by 75 percent. However, some sites are not suited for change.
Moving feedgrounds could influence behavioral changes and reduce transmission risks. However, brucellosis would still persist.
Feedground phase-out could increase elk-to-cattle brucellosis transmission in the long run, he said. Starting to feed late or ending early might reduce transmission, be fairly cost-effective and keep elk population objectives, or it might increase commingling during prime transmission.
The Dell Creek and McNeel feedgrounds near Bondurant aren’t managed for end dates due to adjacent livestock herds.
Habitat enhancement could reduce seroprevalence where elk have access to more forage. Land acquisition, easements and fencing secure habitat and reduce commingling but are expensive and rely on landowners’ cooperation.
Test and slaughter, used from 2006 to 2010 to slaughter elk testing seropositive for brucellosis, worked until several years after it ended, but then seroprevalence spiked again.
New vaccines, vaccine delivery, better field tests and contraceptives are always under study.
The BMAP’s final action suggests mapping brucellosis risk. The BCT asked WGFD to update feedground herds’ seasonal ranges and GPS data showing biologists where elk are during major brucellosis transmission season could be used to make risk maps.
Bousman suggested different BMAP tools might reduce transmission risks at feedgrounds near cattle producers.
Sommers agreed, saying, “Everyone’s situation is different.”
After Scurlock shared draft BMAPs, the BCT board discussed them at length. He noted difficulties with phasing out feedgrounds and said this is the first winter WGFD did not vaccinate elk with Strain 19.
Scurlock’s data-driven map of GPS locations for elk in February through June and March through May could be used for “risk assessment maps” for land managers, producers and agencies. The draft will be finalized by the BCT’s November meeting.
“I fully believe we need to look at risk assessment,” Sommers said. “If we look at feedgrounds, a handful are probably higher risk than others.”
BCT member Terry Pollard stated, many feel closing elk feedgrounds would have “devastating effects on a lot of people.”
“What about moving feedgrounds away from the high-risk areas?” Price asked.
Sommers suggested perhaps one feedground could be moved and another could be used for test-and-slaughter.
“We need to prioritize the feedgrounds, do a risk assessment on each one,” he said. “If we ever really want to move the needle on this, rather than just having meetings every six months, we’re going to have to do some really hard work, get in there, and see if there’s any project we can use to reduce high risks…and then look at the options.”
“I think we need to keep our eye on different tools,” said University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources Dean Frank Galey. “Concentrating on risk assessment would probably be worthwhile. Otherwise, like Albert said, we’re just spinning our wheels.”
Jessica Crowder, representing Gov. Matt Mead, agreed with the need for the BCT to get more involved in reducing transmission risks.
“I want to say I appreciate this discussion about moving the needle,” she said, “and I think that will be appreciated by the Governor as well.”