Montana could escape hit from cattle infections

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana ranchers are not likely to face new sanctions on cattle exports following yet another round of suspected brucellosis infections, signaling an effective truce in the long-running debate over the animal disease, state officials and outside veterinarians said.

Tests are pending to confirm the suspected cattle infections, which officials said last week were found in a 150-head herd in southern Park County.

Brucellosis causes pregnant animals to prematurely abort their young and is blamed for weight loss and other problems in cattle. It largely has been eradicated nationwide but persists in wildlife such as elk from the Yellowstone region of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming.

Past infections among cattle prompted costly sanctions against the region's lucrative livestock industries. But the federal government and other states have softened their stance after more aggressive testing and vaccine programs were recently enacted.

South Dakota veterinarian Dustin Oedekoven said the fact that Montana livestock officials caught the latest infections before the disease could spread outside the Yellowstone region showed the new programs were working.

"We expected that as long as brucellosis exists in Yellowstone park, we're going to see cattle herds found with infections," Oedekoven said. "But we're not seeing herd-to-herd infections (in cattle). And so long as we don't see that, those are positive indicators."

Montana state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said there was a "strong possibility" the six brucellosis-positive cattle in Park County were exposed to infected elk.

Transmissions to cattle from Yellowstone's highly infected wild bison herds have been prevented through a capture-and-slaughter program that has resulted in thousands of bison being killed over the last decade.

Dealing with infected elk has proved a more vexing problem, with most of the 14 infections found in Yellowstone-area livestock over the last decade blamed on elk.

Some ranchers have suggested infected elk should be removed, but opposition from sporting groups and state wildlife officials has blocked such proposals from moving forward. That has left the state and livestock industry to focus on increased testing of cattle, stricter vaccination rules and measures to keep elk and bison separated.

Still, as elk move around, officials have been finding new areas of Montana and Wyoming with brucellosis.

That has prompted the expansion of the state's two designated hot zones for brucellosis controls, known formally as Designated Surveillance Areas, or DSA's. Wyoming state veterinarian Jim Logan said the expansions were an attempt to stay ahead of the disease so that other states remain comfortable with measures taken to contain it.

"But if we find it outside of the DSA, all bets are off," he said.

Zaluski said the cattle now under suspicion of infection in Park County had been vaccinated. Results of more tests on the animals could be back by next week. They are likely to be slaughtered if the disease is confirmed.

Cattle on surrounding ranches could also be tested for the disease. A quarantine on the ranch where the suspected cases were found is likely to remain in place for up to a year while more testing is done to make sure the disease does not recur.

While that could be hard on the affected rancher, it's a much different scenario than unfolded the last time an infection was found in Park County in 2008. That case led to the revocation of the state's brucellosis-free status by the federal government, a move that triggered costly export restrictions and likely damaged Montana's reputation within the cattle industry.

In neighboring North Dakota, deputy state veterinarian Beth Carlson said animal health authorities in her state were watching the latest suspected infections closely, but were not surprised they occurred.

"Our board has recognized that (the Yellowstone-area states) really stepped up in developing their plan for the DSA. It appears to be working," Carlson said.

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