Landowners work with Wyo Game and Fish on plan to reduce elk populationsWritten by Saige Albert
Rawlins – In the sagebrush-covered desert north of Interstate 80 between Rock Springs and Rawlins, elk herds are thriving, and Rawlins rancher Niels Hansen says elk are creating a problem for those utilizing the area for livestock grazing.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time,” says Hansen. “Rawlins-area ranchers have had issues with Hunt Areas 100 and 118 for several years. It’s a combination of overpopulation and uneven distribution.”
Concerns over elk populations came to the forefront several years ago when funding was inadequate to conduct full population counts in the herd.
“I found it quite disturbing that the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD) admitted they had no idea how many elk were in Hunt Area 100 because the landowners had not brought it to their attention,” Hansen says.
Among their reasons for concern, Hansen notes that the risk of brucellosis transmission from the elk is a priority for ranchers in the area.
Elk populations are controlled throughout Wyoming through hunting, and in 2015, WGFD proposed that herd objectives be set by an opinion poll taken after hunting season.
“The plan was to poll landowners and hunters and set license numbers based off the comments. This system is in place in some areas of the state,” Hansen explains. “It was not accepted by landowners, and that probably set the stage for the effort we are working on right now.”
After the proposal was rejected, Hansen visited with the majority of grazing operations utilizing the land in the checkerboard north of Interstate 80 between Rawlins and Rock Springs.
“We asked for a meeting with WGFD to address the elk problem that we have out there,” he says. “We left that meeting with a set of proposed changes in the hunting seasons.”
The resulting changes were reached through cooperation between all parties, as well as flexibility in hunting regulations. Hansen explains that licenses were added, dates we extended and hunt areas were made more flexible. Changes were seen in Hunt Areas 21, 100, 108, 118 and 124.
“We’ve added quite a few new concepts,” he says. “Changes in these hunt areas reflect the communication we’ve had with WGFD over the last few years addressing elk herds around Interstate 80.”
He adds, “Seasons for 21 and 118 reflect an effort to address an out-of-control herd that summers heavily in the Medicine Bow National Forest and northern Colorado.”
The changes create increased flexibility in the areas to allow for more effective management of elk populations across the region.
Coming to a solution was far from an easy feat, notes Hansen, but it’s been worthwhile.
“We are looking at hunt areas across two WGFD regions,” he says. “It isn’t easy when we have to work with so many different people.”
In addition, Hansen says they took an approach that is seldom used in the state.
“In the conversations we had, we also used flex-areas,” he explains. “These are hunt areas that have flexible boundaries and allow hunters to cross area lines. Next year, we can also go in and shift the boundaries or rotate them as we need to for the best management.”
Despite the challenges in reaching a solution, Hansen adds, “Working together is the only way to address this issue. We’re talking about a large area, and we had to get as many of the ranchers together as we could who use the area.”
He also commends WGFD for their quick responses and willingness to work together.
“Within half an hour after I first reached out and asked for a meeting, I was contacted by our local game warden, and we started putting the meeting together,” he says. “We had some great conversations and worked together to get to this end result.”
The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission will meet in April to make the final decision on hunt areas across the state.
Hansen says, “We’ll know in April if all of our efforts were successful.”
Brucellosis identified in two elk outside DSAWritten by Saige Albert
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.
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.
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.
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.
Recent survey shows a largely healthy Cody elk herd, high cow/calf ratiosWritten by Saige
Cody – Most elk in the Cody area are doing well, a fact that’s been confirmed by a recent survey by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department (WGFD).
“We found the elk residing around Carter Mountain, the south side of the South Fork and Boulder Basin were characterized by high calf ratios and large sample sizes,” explains WGFD wildlife biologist Doug McWhirter. “Those herds are thriving and that is reflected in our winter herd numbers.”
Elk in the extreme north end of the herd unit, however, are characterized by lower densities and very low calf ratios. These areas, primarily in the Upper North Fork of the Shoshone River and associated areas of Yellowstone National Park, are struggling.
This year the WGFD surveyed the Cody elk herd in late summer in an attempt to determine how different segments of the herd are doing. This is the first time this survey has been done for the herd.
“We have migratory elk and non-migratory elk,” says McWhirter. “We usually do our surveys in the winter, when all the migratory elk are wintering with the non-migratory elk, so it is hard to figure out how specific populations are doing.”
WGFD flew the survey this year on Aug. 13 and 14, before elk migrations occurred and hunting seasons began.
“As opposed to our traditional winter surveys, we looked at animals where they are hunted, so we had access to the specific population segment that we are concerned with,” says McWhirter.
The WGFD looked primarily at calf-cow ratios, yearling bull ratios and mature bull ratios. Calf-cow ratios are determined by looking at the number of calves per each 100 cows.
“The numbers are somewhat meaningful, but not having done this specific survey in the past, we aren’t trying to do a count. Rather, we are looking for that ratio data,” explains McWhirter.
“We didn’t know if non-migratory elk are doing well, or how the migrants affect those numbers,” says McWhirter, noting the population around Carter Mountain saw calf ratios in the 50s, which is very high.
They also studied the herd in a remote area known as the Thorofare.
“The Thorofare is a remote backcountry area, and it is one of the specific areas we were really interested in learning about, because there are no elk that winter there,” explains McWhirter. “That area also produces the majority of the mature bull harvest, and is a very popular place for hunters.”
The results of the survey in the area showed calf ratios were better than expected.
“It was really important for us to get a handle on what happens there,” adds McWhirter. “What we found was better than expected calf ratios and yearling bull ratios. The numbers aren’t great, but it was definitely better than we were expecting to find.”
Calf ratios came in at between 25 and 30 calves to 100 cow elk.
“We were expecting to see numbers similar to the migratory elk of the Clarks Fork herd, and what we found was much better,” comments McWhirter, noting that calf ratios in the Lamar Valley where migratory elk from the Clarks Fork herd summer, hit in the mid-teens.
McWhirter says this information is useful for assessing elk populations for management, and the WGFD will continue to replicate the survey to gather some trend data, although the surveys are dependent on funding.
“When we have the information that paints a trend, it is a lot more meaningful than data for one particular year,” McWhirter notes. “We plan to gather some additional information, but what we learned from this one survey was extremely revealing.”
A similar survey was done in the Clarks Fork elk herd for four years, and McWhirter anticipates doing a “spot check” in the future to see if trends have changed. The impetus for conducting a preseason survey in the Clarks Fork herd was to look for the presence of significant predation on elk calves, largely by grizzly bears, but also by wolves.
“Those calf ratios are very low. When we see low calf ratios by August and September, that is almost undoubtedly a signal of bear predation,” explains McWhirter. “The bears hit the calves at a very young age. We’ve noticed that in the Lamar Valley, and we were interested in seeing how predation may be affecting the Cody herd unit.”
McWhirter notes that surveys of the Clarks Fork herd were part of a larger study called the Absaroka Elk Ecology Project, a collaborative effort by the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, WGFD and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The project, which began in January 2007, aims to study the behavior, physiology and demography of the Clarks Fork elk herd in the Absaroka Range. The data has found that decreased pregnancy rates of cow elk as well as calf predation has lead to lower herd productivity.
The project has focused on identifying the factors limiting pregnancy rates, and, more broadly, at improving understanding of predator influence on prey and influence on elk migration in the Greater Yellowstone Area. The Absaroka Elk Ecology project anticipates a completion date in 2012 and 2013.
“The surveys in the Lamar Valley were part of that project, and we took some of what we learned from those surveys and are applying it to the Cody elk herd,” says McWhirter.
“Determining adult female survival rates was one of the biggest findings as far as elk management we learned from that project. If we remove hunting from the equation and just look at natural mortality, the survival of adult female elk remains quite high, even in areas of significant wolf and grizzly densities,” explains McWhirter.
“It is less than what we see in an area with no predation, but remains high enough to maintain and build hunting opportunity and population sizes.
However, significant calf mortality rates due to predation don’t produce a surplus for hunting, so hunting opportunities are diminished,” continues McWhirter.
The Cody elk herd occupies the north and south forks of the Shoshone River, the headwaters of the Yellowstone and areas north of the Greybull River and has an estimated population of between 6,000 and 7,000 elk.
Elk numbers: Joint Ag Committee hears access challengesWritten by Christy Martinez
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.
“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.
Elk feedground projects reduced seroprevalence, now in monitoring stageWritten by Saige
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.”