From the pages of
Sublette Examiner
Volume 6, Number 26 - September 21, 2006
brought to you online by Pinedale Online

Lawsuit could halt test-and-slaughter

by Cat Urbigkit

A lawsuit filed in federal district court challenging the authorization of elk feedgrounds on federal lands in western Wyoming could have dire consequences for a research project aimed at reducing brucellosis rates in elk, the state’s brucellosis task force was told this week.

The lawsuit, filed this spring by Earthjustice attorneys representing a coalition of environmental interests, seeks to halt the five-year test-and-slaughter program for elk testing positive for brucellosis on the Muddy Creek elk feedground near Boulder.

Brucellosis is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes abortion and is found in elk and bison in the Yellowstone region. Elk from the Muddy Creek feedground transmitted the disease to cattle in late 2003, resulting in the slaughter of an entire cattle herd to rid livestock of the disease and to reduce the potential for further transmission. The brucellosis outbreak led to Wyoming losing its brucellosis-free marketing status for its cattle herds in early 2004 and resulted in an intensive cattle-testing program. Wyoming’s cattle herds regained brucellosis-free status last week.

The plans for this pilot test project involve the test and removal of no more than 10 percent of the total elk herd population per year. During the first year of the project, 58 cow elk were sent to slaughter after testing seropositive for brucellosis.

The groups filing the lawsuit include the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. The suit asks the federal court to order the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to begin an environmental review of feedgrounds located on federal lands in western Wyoming. The review would study alternatives to the feeding program, such as a phase-out of the feedgrounds.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department veterinarian Dr. Terry Kreeger told a meeting of the Wyoming Brucellosis Coordination Task Force that his agency fully intends to move forward with the second year of the pilot project this winter. Kreeger said this second year should begin to provide some important results and he anticipates “we will see some mathematical reduction” in brucellosis in the Pinedale elk herd.

Levi Martin of the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office noted that Earthjustice is seeking an injunction to stop the Muddy Creek project.

“Last year’s work would be for nothing if we were unable to continue on with it,” he said.

House District 22 Representative Monte Olsen of Daniel, also a member of the task force, noted that the pilot project was one of the measures looked at by the federal team that had conducted an assessment whether Wyoming should regain its brucellosis class-free status. The review team cited the pilot project as part of the state’s effort to combat the disease in both livestock and wildlife.

“What would that do to our status?” Olsen questioned Dr. Bret Combs of the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

Combs seemed surprised at the notion that the test-and-removal project could be halted. He said: “I don’t know. I thought this was a dead issue. Obviously we don’t have any control over that.”

Combs said that the review team, consisting of animal health officials from around the nation, included several who are familiar with all the efforts to control brucellosis in western Wyoming, including those involving wildlife. Combs said he believed his agency would be understanding of the circumstances.

Martin said the lawsuit centers on two main issues: whether authorization for the elk feedgrounds complies with the National Environmental Policy Act and whether the federal government has issued valid permits for the feedgrounds.

There are 13 elk feedgrounds located on either Bureau of Land Management or Bridger-Teton National Forest land in western Wyoming. Martin said that with a six-year statute of limitations to appeal the issuance of permits for elk feeding, this should drop most of the feedgrounds from the line of argument, leaving about four feedgrounds at issue.

Although the pilot project has focused on the Muddy Creek feedground, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department plans to expand the program to the nearby Scab Creek and Fall Creek feedgrounds at some point during the five-year project.

Oral arguments in the elk feedground lawsuit are slated to be heard by Judge Alan Johnson in U.S. District Court of Wyoming in Cheyenne on Oct. 19 at 3 p.m.

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