SHERIDAN — Despite mounting concerns that area elk may have contracted brucellosis — an abortion-inducing disease that can easily be transferred to cattle — the Wyoming Livestock Board’s state veterinarian isn’t ready to expand regulations for beef producers.
At a meeting Monday hosted by Moxey Schreiber Veterinary Hospital and held at Sheridan College, a team of veterinary science and wildlife management experts said while the situation is no doubt serious, state and federal agencies are doing everything possible to protect Wyoming ranchers and their ability to make a living.
For now at least, that means cattle producers won’t face additional hurdles when it comes to exporting their calves.
“At this point in time that is not being discussed,” said Dr. Walt Cook, brucellosis coordinator at the University of Wyoming.
Instead, state agencies are looking to push voluntary testing and community efforts to keep herds physically segregated from elk and the bacteria that causes the disease.
Cook said a united effort on the part of ranchers is particularly important since vets in other states would be within their rights to place restrictions on the importation of Wyoming beef.
The discovery of brucellosis antibodies in area elk caught state officials off guard since Wyoming, along with every other state in the nation, has been recognized as brucellosis-free since midway through the 20th Century.
The disease — which is often considered a serious economic threat by cattle producers — is only known to persist in the area immediately surrounding Yellowstone National Park.
Cattle produced inside what the Wyoming Game and Fish Department refers to as the designated surveillance area face heightened restrictions when it comes to testing and exportation. Beef from other areas of the state were not previously considered at risk.
But according to blood tests performed by Game and Fish, a pair of elk harvested last year on the western slope of the Bighorn Mountains tested sero-positive for brucellosis.
While a sero-positive result does not prove definitively that an animal is infected with the disease — only a time-consuming and costly analysis of bodily tissue can do that — it does indicate exposure to the bacteria that causes it.
Game and Fish officials obtained the specimens through voluntary blood sample submissions from hunters during the 2012 elk season.
Testing kits were not distributed on the Sheridan side of the mountains in 2012.
Of more than 600 testing kits mailed to hunters on the west side of the range, however, the department received only 25 usable samples over the course of the season. Two of those tested positive for exposure.
Wildlife experts admitted that such a small sample can’t tell them much about the possible prevalence of brucellosis antibodies in area elk.
“That’s what has everybody from the governor on down concerned,” said Regional Wildlife Supervisor Joe Gilbert.
Brucellosis is a threat to ranchers thanks largely to the inquisitive nature of cattle.
When exposed to an aborted fetus, cows tend to investigate by sniffing and licking the remains. That exposure can be sufficient for them to contract the disease.
“We know that curiosity killed the cat and in the case of brucellosis, curiosity infected the bovine,” Cook said.
As a result, speakers urged ranchers to strengthen the physical barriers between their herds and any land where elk are known to travel.
Meanwhile, state agencies plan to increase surveillance measures and work with the federal government to determine how best to fund additional voluntary testing of Wyoming cattle.
They currently have no plans to expand the designated brucellosis surveillance area and the heightened restrictions that come with it.