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Wyoming's Test-and-Slaughter Program For Elk Completes 4th Year

March 16, 2009.

From Wyoming Game and Fish:

Year four of the five-year elk test-and-removal pilot project was completed with a second week of captures taking place last week. The pilot project was one of 28 recommendations made by the Governor's Brucellosis Coordination Team in a comprehensive effort to deal with brucellosis in Wyoming.  The members of this group were tasked to come up with effective long-term solutions to the brucellosis problem in Wyoming and new ideas on how to manage brucellosis.

Beginning this year, trapping efforts were conducted at all three elk feedgrounds within the Pinedale elk herd--Muddy Creek, Scab Creek and Fall Creek feedgrounds--along the west slope of the Wind River range south of Pinedale. Trapping was done only at Muddy Creek feedground the first two years and expanded to include Fall Creek feedground last year.

This past week, elk were successfully trapped at all three feedgrounds. Agency personnel captured and handled 489 elk total. From those, 190 were test-eligible adult cows that were bled to test for exposure to brucellosis. Of the female elk bled, 34 tested seropositive for the disease and were removed from the population.

Elk were also trapped and tested for brucellosis at the same three feedgrounds in January. Between the two week-long capture efforts, a total of 932 elk were trapped and moved through the chutes. Of those, 421 were test-eligible adult cows that were bled. Of those bled, a total of 50 tested seropositive for the disease and were removed from the population. Additionally, there were two known trapping-related mortalities. When handling such a large number of elk, capture mortality is always a possibility.

The trapping operation involved between 50 and 60 personnel from Game and Fish and other agencies.  Game and Fish personnel working at the Wyoming State Veterinary Laboratory in Laramie perform six different blood tests to determine which elk were most likely to have the disease.

"Game and Fish is dedicated to completing our commitments to the Governor's Brucellosis Coordination Team," said Scott Talbott, Assistant Wildlife Division Chief for Game and Fish, who coordinated the project. "This operation has required a large amount of department resources and is difficult for personnel who are trained as wildlife professionals. I'm proud they can complete this task in the most professional manner, knowing they are furthering our knowledge and understanding of this disease."

In addition to the removal of seropositive elk, there is valuable research in brucellosis management evolving from this scientific experiment. Currently, blood samples from captured elk will only show if the animal has been exposed to Brucella abortus, the bacteria responsible for brucellosis infection. Tissue samples will be collected from all seropositive elk. These tissues will be cultured to determine if the slaughtered animals were actually infected and capable of transmitting the disease.

"We're working with scientists at the University of Wyoming to identify a better predictor of brucellosis culture positive elk from the six blood tests we used," said Hank Edwards, Wyoming Game and Fish wildlife disease specialist. "Research of this magnitude had never been possible until this project, it's a very valuable component of the pilot project."

There is other important scientific research making use of the biological samples.  Biologists are utilizing fetuses removed from elk that are culture negative, or unable to transmit the disease, in a project examining scavenging rates on elk feedgrounds.  This research recently led to implementation of the Target Feedground Project, an effort to reduce brucellosis prevalence in elk by utilizing low-density feeding methods combined with shortening the length of the feeding season.

There is also cooperative research being conducted with the United States Geological Survey on how various characteristics of elk movements affect brucellosis prevalence on feedgrounds. Researchers are utilizing the already captured elk to deploy GPS collars on test-negative animals on all three feedgrounds in the Pinedale elk herd unit.

Elk feedgrounds have been active in northwest Wyoming for nearly a century. The first feedground established in Wyoming was at the National Elk Refuge in 1912. Today, there are 22 state-operated feedgrounds in Wyoming, in addition to the National Elk Refuge, which is operated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In an average year, around 13,000 elk are fed on state feedgrounds. Around 6,000 are fed on the National Elk Refuge each year.

Brucellosis transmitted to cattle herds from elk caused Wyoming to lose its brucellosis free status in 2004.  Wyoming regained its Brucellosis Class Free status in September 2006, however cattle from a herd near Daniel were found to be positive for the disease in June of 2008.  If a second Wyoming herd were to test positive, the state could again lose its brucellosis free status, thus limiting its ability to freely market its cattle.  Ongoing research, along with other management practices, is an important part to eliminating brucellosis in wildlife and maintaining Class Free status for Wyoming.

The Governor's Brucellosis Coordination Team made the recommendation for the pilot test-and-removal experiment to last five years.  Elk will again be captured and tested at all three elk feedgrounds in the Pinedale elk herd during the winter of 2009-2010, thus completing the five-year pilot project. A comprehensive review of the pilot project will be completed by the Governor's Brucellosis Coordination Team at that time.


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