SHERIDAN — Elk from the Bighorn National Forest have clean bills of health from the brucellosis presence a few years ago, according to Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s Tim Thomas.
Each year, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department monitors the distribution and prevalence of brucellosis within the state’s elk population, according to a handout presented by Thomas. Approximately 10,000 blood collection kits are assembled and mailed to elk hunters successful in acquiring limited quota licenses within target surveillance areas.
The program began in 1991 and throughout the program, more than 17,000 blood samples have been analyzed. A total of 1,559 elk blood samples were tested in the 2018 surveillance of the Bighorn Mountains area with 1,529 of them being suitable for testing. There were no positive tests for brucellosis in the 2018 sampling.
Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that spreads from animals to people, according to the Mayo Clinic. The local Game and Fish started testing for the infection in 2011. The first time brucellosis was present in the Bighorn Mountains was in 2012, thought to be carried over through elk herds from the Big Horn Basin and greater Yellowstone area.
“We thought maybe these elk were moving back and forth, so we put some collars out there, we got 61 cows that have been collared out there,” Thomas said. “Nobody moved…We don’t know if we’re missing it…but that’s what we found was that potential brucellosis source was coming this way. We don’t know where it’s coming from.”
Thomas said everyone has calmed down about the potential of the infection spreading, as it has not been detected in the last two years in the area.
Brucellosis can transfer from wildlife to livestock through cow elk herds. Bull elk are dead-end transmitters, so eliminating cow elk testing positive was integral to stopping the bacterial infection from spreading. Because of this, local livestock owners and veterinarians have been actively participating in conversations with the WGFD.
Outside of the infection, U.S. Forest Service employees regularly manage the elk population in the Bighorn National Forest to properly preserve the wildlife by working with WGFD wardens to navigate hunting season limitations.
USFS Bighorn National Forest Resource Staff Officer Bernie Bornong said employees remap the area every five years to keep an updated forest plan for elk and herd wildlife guidelines.
A security area is any area that will hold elk during periods of stress because of geography, topography, vegetation or a combination of those features, according to Bornong’s presentation. Security areas can be defined by any forested area that sits ½ mile from roads open to vehicular traffic and blocks of timber greater than 250 acres in size and not less than 1,200 feet in width. Because of those stipulations, tree and forest growth is essential.
The USFS monitors elk hunting areas and the moving populations. The point of monitoring is to find the perfect balance — in conjunction with the WGFD — of road closures, hunting area limits and season lengths to preserve the elk herds in the most sustainable way without under or overpopulating the area.
Elk hunting in the BNF resulted in more than $5.5 million in revenue for the economy. The BNF might begin to use trail cameras in addition to the WGFD’s collars to track migration, movement and population density of elk herds in the Bighorns. Elk herds continue to be monitored by WGFD and USFS personnel with the hopes of maintaining healthy, well-established herds.