Bison hazed back to Yellowstone

Mike Greener/Chronicle

A mother bison and her calf are hazed by authorities back into Yellowstone Park on May 16th, 2013.

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EMIGRANT – The Montana Department of Livestock will start a bison vaccination program in February without the approval of tribes and other state and federal agencies.

At Thursday's meeting of the Interagency Bison Management Plan members, state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said the DOL intends to vaccinate Yellowstone National Park bison against the symptoms of brucellosis in late February through early March.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease that can be transferred to bison, elk and cattle if animals come in physical contact with an aborted fetus or related tissue.

Part of the goal of the IBMP is to keep bison from infecting cattle. The organization has been successful — only elk have infected cattle recently in Montana.

Still, Zaluski said the DOL wants to reduce the occurrence of the disease in bison — estimated at about 50 percent — to be on par with occurrence in elk, which is 10 to 20 percent, depending on the location of the herd.

As animals migrate outside the park on the northwest side, DOL employees would capture bison opportunistically using a mobile trap on private land, either at the West Yellowstone Airport or on Horse Butte, Zaluski said.

The vaccinated bison would receive a temporary marker or tag, Zaluski said.

Zaluski said the DOL had no goal as far as how many bison they would vaccinate or how long the program would need to last.

The DOL would have to depend on other partners, such as YNP, to help with  long-term monitoring program to see if vaccinated bison carried their calves to term, Zaluski said.

“We feel this is a priority. We made a commitment in this very room to vaccinate or to increase vaccination,” Zaluski said. “I feel that science does support a response to vaccination.”

That's where Zaluski and many of the IBMP partners parted ways.

In February, the partners invited several out-of-state scientists to analyze the available science on brucellosis vaccination and make a recommendation on the effectiveness of using a vaccine on park bison.

The scientists concluded that, with elk also carrying the disease, any vaccination program would take decades and eradication of the disease was impossible.

Research also shows that the time period immediately prior to calving is when vaccination is least effective. The vaccination doesn't prevent the disease; it just prevents some abortions.

“The folks that reviewed the science made some pretty strong conclusions. All I'm saying is the best available science suggests that vaccination, on top of what is a very negligible existing risk from bison, would have a negligible reduction in risk,” said Yellowstone Center for Resources director Dave Hallac.

Zaluski questioned the objectivity of the panel scientists and argued that vaccination was a tool like hunting and hazing.

DOL executive director Christian MacKay said the DOL didn't push for vaccination in years past because it was holding off to support the tribal hunts.

It's more of a priority for livestock owners now, MacKay said, because the IBMP is expanding the area outside the park where bison can migrate in winter.

The DOL has the authority to vaccinate bison independent of the other IBMP partners.

In addition to vaccinating bison, DOL workers would also test bison to catch carriers of the disease.

Zaluski said the DOL had not yet made a final decision on how it would handle bison that tested positive.

Animals can test positive for the disease without being infected. In the past, the state has killed any bison that tested positive for brucellosis.

The tribal members of the IBMP — the Nez Perce, the Confederated Salish Kootenai and the Intertribal Buffalo Council — voiced their opposition to the vaccination plan and the DOL's lack of coordination with any other IBMP members.

“I think this has more to deal with the politics of the situation. From our prospective, in a partnership, I don't know how many resources one agency should throw at the politics of it,” said Intertribal Buffalo Council executive director Jim Stone.

Zaluski acknowledged that politics played a part but said vaccination was part of the original IBMP decision.

Pat Flowers, Fish, Wildlife & Parks Region 3 supervisor, agreed with Zaluski that vaccination was a tool allowed under the IBMP. But he questioned whether that should continue.

“But what are we getting out of this? Does it still make sense to use this as a tool?” Flowers said. “We haven't focused on vaccination in this broader context. The clearer we can be about the value we're getting, the better off we are in describing to the public what we're doing.”

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