Montana wildlife officials gave initial approval Thursday to a plan expanding the ability of landowners to obtain elk-kill permits to reduce the spread of disease to cattle.
Montana Fish and Wildlife commissioners voted unanimously to allow additional hunters in southern Montana to kill up to 250 elk that move near livestock herds from January to April of 2016.
The updated plan would let livestock producers choose people to participate in state-approved dispersal hunts outside Montana's regular five-week elk season.
Wildlife Bureau Coordinator Quentin Kujala said the state would designate hunters from a roster of licensed volunteers to join the hand-picked ones. But the additional people would only be called to action if more people are needed to scare away or shoot elk.
Kujala said the change will allow ranchers and their neighbors to respond faster to prevent possible transmissions of brucellosis, a disease that can cause animals to prematurely abort. It is believed to be transferred when cattle come in contact with birthing material from an infected elk.
Kathryn QannaYahu, a conservation hunter from Bozeman, argued the program is operating without state or legal authority and needs to be reined in under legislation or agency rules. She also said the brucellosis plan discounts the possibility of brucellosis spreading between livestock herds.
Kujala said no elk have been taken under the plan since the commissioners added the elk-kill permits in November. One hunt was requested and approved in Park County, but it fell through.
"The producer was frustrated that the hunters available on the hunt roster were not local and had to travel some distance in order to participate in the hunt," a Fish, Wildlife and Parks report on the brucellosis plan stated. "This resulted in a delay from when the hunter was called and by the time the hunter arrived the commingling was no longer occurring."
QannaYahu said no brucellosis has been found in the specific area of Paradise Valley where the hunt was requested.
The brucellosis plan reimburses ranchers to use ATVs, snowmobiles, helicopters, horses or other disruptive means to scatter elk. It also provides state aid to construct elk-proof fencing and modify habitats.
The rancher who asked for the hunt also requested a hazing operation that cost a total of more than $4,500, including the cost of two workers' time, rubber bullets and cracker shells, the agency report said. The only other hazing operation cost $90.
The agency provided $2,000 worth of fencing panels this year for a cattle rancher in Tom Miner Basin who reported elk were eating hay adjacent to a feedlot. "Securing the haystacks removed the attractant and elk were rarely in proximity to cattle once the stackyard was secured," the report said.
The proposal is open for comment before the commissioners take a final vote in October.
This story has been corrected to show Bozeman conservation hunter Kathryn QannaYahu argued the program is operating without state or legal authority and that no brucellosis has been found in the area where the hunt was requested.