USDA cuts include decommissioning brucellosis studies
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s plans to decommission brucellosis field studies is in direct conflict of a recent study that concluded that brucellosis is spreading in wildlife, and more research is needed, not less, in both elk and bison.
The National Academy of Sciences report, Revisiting Brucellosis in the Greater Yellowstone Area, published in May 2017, funded by the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service states, “top priority should be placed on research to better understand brucellosis disease ecology and epidemiology in elk and bison,” and “the current spread of brucellosis will have serious future implications if it moves outside of the GYA.”
The research is important, especially for producers in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. The National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials, has weighed in on the value of the research, calling USDA’s plan deeply troubling.
Findings from prior research efforts have directly affected decisions relating to management of brucellosis, according to NASAHO president and veterinarian Susan Keller.
Studies on time management following land use in infected areas, remote vaccination of wildlife, and the ability of bull bison to transmit brucellosis are all potentially on the chopping block.
“One ongoing study examines transmission of brucellosis from bison treated with contraceptive agents. Non-surgical reproductive control via contraception has the potential to affect not only population growth, but also spread of brucellosis within and from a wildlife population,” Keller said.
The group believes that decommissioning the field research will create a domino effect, and any chance of resuming most of it will include high start-up costs, the loss of invaluable expertise, and competing interests for limited funding.
“The increase in prevalence and geographic expansion of brucellosis has been well-documented over the last decade. The decision to decommission brucellosis studies puts states that share the geographical range of elk in the Western United States at increased risk,” Keller said.
Another concern is that the void in research will be filled by other groups that may not have the same priorities, including protecting domestic livestock.
The United States Cattlemen’s Association also shared concerns with the decommissioning of the research.
“Not only is brucellosis an expanding zoonotic disease in the Greater Yellowstone Area, but prior brucellosis research efforts have directly influenced improved decision-making related to brucellosis management,” USCA wrote in a letter.
According to USDA, the current brucellosis field research must be discontinued to ensure compliance with select agent regulations. But USCA says studies on captive elk and bison in Montana qualify for an exclusion, which states that “any overlap select agent or toxin that is in its naturally occurring environment, provided that the select agent or toxin has not been intentionally introduced, cultivated, collected or otherwise extracted from its natural source.”
“Now is not the time to cut back on valuable brucellosis field research,” USCA President Kenny Graner said.
A joint study from the National Wildlife Research Center, Natural Resources Research Center and National Veterinary Services Laboratories, published with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at brucellosis transmission from April 2002-April 2012.
According to the study, brucellosis was discovered in 13 beef cattle herds and four ranched bison herds in the GYA.
Additionally, from comingling of cattle herds at the time of transmission and transfer of ownership of some animals between infection and detection, three more infected cattle herds were identified.
Seventeen instances of brucellosis transmission from elk to livestock were reported during that time frame.
The study brings up several possible factors that contribute to changes in elk distributions and the resulting increases in brucellosis in some populations and its transmission to livestock. These include population and density increases, changes in land management that created safe havens for elk, and reintroduction of wolves to the GYA.
“If brucellosis continues to increase among free-ranging elk populations remote from feeding grounds, the area to which brucellosis is endemic is likely to expand and the risk for transmission to livestock and the public will increase, in part reversing the hard-fought gains of the past 75 years in eliminating the disease in the United States. Gaining a better understanding of ecologic and sociologic changes in the GYA and their impact on the epidemiology of this wildlife–livestock–human interface disease is essential to developing effective management strategies,” said Jack Rhyan, veterinary pathologist and head of the Veterinary Services Wildlife/Livestock Disease Investigations Team at the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo. ❖
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