From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 3, Number 43 - January 22, 2004
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

The untold brucellosis story

by Jim Bousman - Special to the Examiner

The fall of 2003 was looking good for cattle ranchers in Boulder. Sure, we had our list of problems: wolves, continued drought and pressure from environmental groups on many fronts, but things were looking up. Cattle prices were at a record high, early snowstorms had brought some much-needed moisture. Doc Jensen, our next-door neighbor, had raised the best herd of straight-bred Hereford steers, ever, in Boulder, weighing over 950 pounds. What more could we ask for?

And then "Bang!" Or rather, "Bangs!" The phone rang and Dad told me, "I think our community may have a problem with brucellosis." We soon found out where four brucellosis titer reactors found at slaughter would lead to.

Doc's herd had to be bled. I fed our cows early so that I could help. I arrived to find 10 people already working Doc's cows, putting their lives on hold to help their neighbor. Then the wait began. It seemed like weeks, but the dreaded phone call finally came. The cows were "hot;" 31 of them had brucellosis.

What did this mean? Would Doc's herd have to go? Did it come from the elk on the Muddy elk feedground? Meetings were held to answer many of these questions. Some of the hard questions, however, were not answered. And still haven't been.

Why did the federal government make livestock producers stop vaccinating with Strain 19 and switch to RB51 when Strain 19 had worked since the 1940s? If RB51 does not leave a titer, then why is there a RB51 vaccinate in one of the contact herds that has a titer, but does not have brucellosis? Why were we forced to use a vaccine that had not had any long-term efficacy studies completed? Finally, why weren't we allowed to adult vaccinate (booster) our herds if the "big shots" knew it would have reduced the risk of spreading the disease?

I left the Pinedale meeting wondering if USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service representatives would have answered these questions differently if it was their own infected herds.

On the positive side, we were pleased to hear Governor Dave Freudenthal plans to develop a task force to look at the overall problem, including the infected elk. Doing away with the elk feedgrounds would only disperse the disease more, and the governor understands this. Now we are just keeping our fingers crossed.

So we isolated the 31 cows that had brucellosis. The Jensens didn't ask, but I know that a neighbor can always use help. I found Doc and his family in the corral trying to cut out the infected cows by their backtag numbers. The cows were mad and the corrals were slick. One cow fell on the ice and struggled to get up. It was nearly dark when we finished. I loaded the last 14 cows on my stock truck - a full load. As the cows rattled the old wooden stock rack, I wondered: "Am I doing the right thing? Am I contaminating my truck?" As I pulled away from the chute, I met my neighbor coming back for another load.

"I got them all on," I shouted.

"Thanks for the help!" he said, choked with emotion. "I really appreciate it."

It was the first time in my life that I had seen him that way. At that moment I knew I was doing the right thing. I didn't care if I contaminated my truck or even myself if need be.

The contact herds also had to be tested. My family's herd was the third to be bled. Our lives stopped until the work was completed and we knew the results. Early one morning as I headed out the door, we heard that our herd was clean. I was relieved, but at the same time, knew that the only way to save Doc's herd was for all of his neighbors to also have the disease. In fact, if the State of Wyoming lost its brucellosis-free status, it may have increased our political support, helping to solve the problem in the long run.

The next neighbor's cattle chute was frozen in the ice. I found a bar and began trying to break it loose. Slow work. As sweat ran underneath my coat and hat, I looked up through my fogging glasses to see a shiny Wyoming Game and Fish Department truck driving by. I thought to myself: "Why doesn't that person stop and help chip this ice or run these cows through? Their elk are the source of the problem."

Someone brought some donuts, coffee and chocolate to drink. One of the federal vets commented: "You guys are the best bunch of people we have ever worked with. No one has ever cooperated with us or had a group of neighbors that worked together like you have. I am sorry that this had to happen to you."

Sorry is right. To this day, I have not heard anyone from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department apologize or offer to help. Their mismanagement has caused heartache and economic loss, yet they do not have to answer to anyone. When they tested the elk for brucellosis, they could have culled the diseased ones, not only for the safety of the nearby cattle herds, but to also improve the health of the elk herds and reduce the risk to hunters.

As I pulled into the yard at dark, a man stepped out of his vehicle, wearing an orange hat, a hunter. He wanted to know if he could have permission to hunt on our private property. I informed him that he could, and that we were cooperating in a Wyoming Game and Fish Hunter Management Area. By the way, we refuse to accept any money to participate in this program.

Doc's herd, unfortunately, had to be depopulated. I helped load the cattle on the trucks, working with his son Jerry, sorting off lots of cows.

"I need nine," the truck driver would shout. "Now 18, and then 22."

Little by little, the bunch of cows in the corral became smaller and smaller, and then they were gone. Not much was said, and the trucks rolled away and headed down Highway 191.

The next morning, I drove by the Jensens' ranch as I went to feed my cows. It was about 9 a.m., and there they were, walking to the house, done with the day's work. Their steer and to-be-spayed heifer calves that they were "allowed" to keep were fed. I wondered what they would do now.

The previous night Doc had told my dad that maybe he would just subdivide his property located next to the Muddy elk feedground and let it be someone else's problem.

"See how they like that!" I thought. Maybe then the Wyoming Game and Fish will appreciate the open space and habitat we provide free to wildlife by staying in business.

As I hauled hay down the road, I thought: "Maybe our family should just subdivide, too. It will just be a matter of time before another one of us gets more brucellosis from the elk. The feds rejected Wyoming's wolf plan too, so things will only get worse. Besides, I have a college degree, I should just do something else."

I then drove the tractor past my house, and there was my wife, holding our two-year-old son, bundled up in his winter coat. I stopped and climbed out of the cab, hearing him shout, "Daddy, Daddy, tractor, tractor," his first two words.

I gathered him up and put him in with me, knowing that he will be the sixth generation of my family to ranch in Boulder. The thought sent a burst of emotion and pride from my head to my toes, and I said to myself, "They haven't got the best of us yet!"

Then I went to feed our cows for another day.

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