ENNIS - The upper Madison Valley is the state of Montana's hot spot for brucellosis in elk, state officials told a group of ranchers here Thursday.

But despite a spike in the infection rate that showed up in Madison Valley elk based on random sampling, officials said a much larger sample is needed to discern whether the disease is spreading among elk.

"We don't want to be pushing any panic buttons," Montana State Veterinarian Tom Linfield told a skeptical crowd of about 60 people, mostly area ranchers. "But we are facing a risk of infection from elk-cattle interaction."

Last fall officials recorded a 6.9 percent rate of brucellosis exposure in elk along the east side of the Madison Valley. That was based on blood samples Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks' biologists collected, and samples turned in by hunters.

Brucellosis is a disease that is spread by exposure to reproductive fluids, especially afterbirth. It can cause fetuses to abort and has in the past wiped some livestock producers out of business.

Montana is classified "brucellosis free," and ranchers throughout the state are concerned it could damage their business if the state loses that status.

A single cow that tested positive for the disease would force the state to either wipe out that rancher's herd, or the state would lose its brucellosis-free status, Linfield said. State and federal officials' goal is to wipe out the disease, although that's a nearly impossible task.

But ranchers at the meeting were skeptical that officials are trying to tackle the problem.

Sen. Bill Tash, R-Dillon, criticized FWP for letting elk herds grow too large, move onto private land and threaten ranchers.

"It's poor management on your part and it's not fair to us who are trying to stay in business," he said. "We can't exceed habitat limits as livestock producers."

Last fall's rate, which topped 5 percent, triggered officials to boost their monitoring for brucellosis exposure. For the next two years, officials will try to dramatically boost the number of samples, counting especially on hunters to collect blood and keep the sample viable when they kill an elk in the valley.

Representatives of a hunting group, however, doubted whether brucellosis could ever be eliminated, as an agreement between states around Yellowstone National Park and federal agencies called for. Bill O'Connell, with the Gallatin Wildlife Association, said if the disease is prevalent among elk, the only way to deal with it would be a massive capture, test and slaughter program, something hunters would furiously oppose.

"On the public lands, wildlife deserve some priority," he said. "Let's not go to extremes on this."

It's true that brucellosis around Yellowstone can likely never be wiped out completely because it's being spread at winter feed grounds in Wyoming and by park bison, said Kurt Alt, FWP southwest Montana wildlife manager. But he said Montana can still work to keep the disease from spreading.

"The hot spot in Montana, which is in the upper Madison, wouldn't even be on the radar screen in Wyoming," he said. "We're talking about managing risk."