Fighting Brucellosis in Elk

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Since 1998, Fish and Game has been trapping, testing and culling elk that test positive for brucellosis, and despite a set-back, the efforts appears to be working.

The disease became an issue when Idaho lost its brucellosis-free status for livestock earlier this year.

Brucellosis can be transmitted between domestic livestock, elk and bison and is a concern in eastern Idaho, western Wyoming and southwestern Montana. The disease in domestic cattle, elk and bison causes abortions and other problems. In humans it causes undulant fever with chronic recurrent flu-like symptoms - one of the reasons milk is pasteurized.

The disease was confirmed in a second Idaho livestock herd near Arco late last year. State officials found brucellosis in a herd in Swan Valley in October.

The disease has been all but wiped out in most of the rest of the country except in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and in Wyoming elk herds that are fed in the winter.

Idaho Fish and Game has been working with the state Department of Agriculture to keep the disease in check. In addition to trapping and culling elk, state officials are pushing an effort to fence haystacks and feedlots to keep any potentially infected elk away from the hay and separate from livestock, Fish and Game Big Game Manager Brad Compton said.

Others efforts include habitat improvements to encourage elk to disperse and late season hunts to keep numbers under control. The agencies also are asking private land owners to post lands closed to snowmobiles in key elk wintering areas to give elk someplace to go.

In the past five years the numbers of infected elk captured at trapping sites has gone down, Compton said.

But part of the problem is with feeding elk to keep them from farmers' haystacks, such as the elk feeding area in Rainey Creek. Brucellosis is more prevalent in fed animals, because they tend to congregate in higher concentrations in feeding areas, spreading the infectious disease.

Typically Idaho bans elk feeding except in emergencies. But as long as Wyoming's wide spread elk feeding program continues, infected elk are likely to wander into Idaho. The key to preventing the spread of brucellosis from elk to livestock is keeping them apart, Compton said.