Elk Vaccination Can Proceed On National Elk Refuge

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The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s “Finding of No Significant Impact” concerning vaccinating elk against brucellosis on the National Elk Refuge is welcome news to the Game and Fish Department, reports G&F Acting Director Tom Thorne.

The finding, which was released Feb. 3, clears the way for the G&F to expand its elk vaccination program to control brucellosis on the refuge. The vaccination, administered by a specialized air gun, will begin when the refuge commences elk feeding in upcoming weeks.

“This finding is very important because about one third of all elk on feedgrounds in western Wyoming are fed on the National Elk Refuge,” Thorne said. “Without being able to vaccinate the elk on the refuge, there was no chance to control and hopefully eradicate the disease in elk. Now there is.”

He said the disease can be spread when the animals are congregated on feedgrounds, and there is frequent interchange of elk from different herds on feedgrounds and summer ranges.

The finding is the latest step in a trail of negotiations, litigation and settlements between the G&F and Fish and Wildlife Service since the early 1990s. After trying for many years to gain authorization to vaccinate on the refuge, Thorne said the state of Wyoming filed a lawsuit “out of frustration.”

On appeal of the first decision, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a ruling partially in favor of Wyoming’s argument. That prompted the G&F and USFWS to strike an agreement allowing vaccination pending an environmental assessment and compatibility evaluation.

“The EA and evaluation said what we thought it would: that there is no real negative impact from our vaccination program,” said Thorne, who as the G&F’s research veterinarian formerly supervised the brucellosis program.

The agreement permits vaccination through 2005 when the environmental impact statement on elk and bison management for Grand Teton National Park and the refuge is scheduled to be completed.

Brucellosis is a bacterial disease, which induces abortions in elk and bison. Also known as Bang’s disease, brucellosis was a dreaded cattle affliction until an effective vaccine was developed in the 1940s.

Thorne believes the vaccination program on the refuge will yield positive benefits in the next three years. “It should reduce the number of abortions by dozens or hundreds, which will also result in less transmission among the elk,” he said.

“It remains to be seen if brucellosis can be eradicated, because we’ve never been able to try due to not being able to expand the program to the refuge,” Thorne adds. “I believe if we vaccinate over a long enough period of time we might have a good chance of eradicating the disease. If not, it can certainly be reduced to a very low prevalence.”

The G&F currently vaccinates on 21 of its 22 feedgrounds. The non-vaccinating feedground serves as a control area to compare infection rates.