Montana wildlife officials are proposing to keep elk that have been exposed to disease from mingling with unexposed elk across a wide area north and west of Yellowstone National Park, though they acknowledge that plan has a high possibility of failure.
The proposal released by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks adds a new wrinkle to the state's elk management plan in areas with brucellosis, a disease that causes animals to abort their young. Ranchers fear wildlife such as elk and bison will spread the disease to their livestock.
Previous versions of the management plan have allowed elk-kill permits, fencing and hazing elk away from cattle in an effort to stem the spread of the disease.
The new version also would allow hazing to keep different groups of elk separated near the boundary of a designated brucellosis surveillance area that covers a wide swath of southwestern Montana. The aim is to keep the elk within the surveillance area — about 30,000 animals, according to FWP estimates — from coming into contact with elk from outside the area that are presumed to have no brucellosis exposure.
FWP officials already participate in a bison hazing program each spring with the Montana Department of Livestock, in which horses and helicopters are used to drive the giant animals back toward Yellowstone and away from private land and livestock.
But wildlife officials, in their proposal, acknowledge that the elk-hazing program would be difficult to implement and could result in spending a considerable amount of money with little or no return. A draft of the FWP plan did not include a proposed budget, but officials estimated that two instances of elk hazing last year cost between $20 and $25 per hour for a total of about $1,000.
"This tool has high potential to fail if only because all elk interactions cannot possibly be monitored, identified or influenced," the draft reads. "Further, the logistics of adjusting the distribution of potentially thousands of elk across a wide expanse is overwhelming by any measure and at some level is likely to erode support by wildlife advocates for brucellosis risk management."
Quentin Kujala, the FWP's wildlife management section chief, said the plan would not be to provide blanket protection of the surveillance area's boundary, but to strategically target smaller herds seen approaching areas that other elk that had not been exposed to disease.
But even such "surgical" hazing of two free-ranging groups of elk would be more difficult than the current practice of driving away elk from cattle in a fixed location, such as a pasture, he said.
"Even if we had the green light to proceed, we're not sure we can be effective at doing it," he said.
The proposal was developed from interest received from the livestock industry, Kujala said.
The Montana Stockgrowers Association supports the elk-hazing plan, while recognizing there will be challenges in implementing it, said Jay Bodner, the organization's natural resources director.
It's important to keep the boundaries of the brucellosis surveillance area from expanding, he said. Developing a better vaccine for livestock won't happen overnight, so state officials should take other measures, he said.
"It's one more potential step they can take to potentially reduce the transmission of brucellosis," Bodner said of the elk-hazing proposal.
One wildlife advocate, Glenn Hockett of the Gallatin Wildlife Association, called the proposal an exercise in futility.
"It's going to waste a lot of money, stress a lot of elk and they're not going to get much out of it," he said.
The focus should not be on containing wildlife, but on making better brucellosis vaccines for livestock, he said. "For West Nile Virus, we vaccinate the horse, not the mosquitoes," he added.
The plan goes before the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission Thursday. If commissioners give their initial approval, the public will have a chance to comment before a final vote is taken in October.