Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Flaws with brucellosis testing system on Montana cattle

| July 27, 2007 12:00 AM

To the Editor:

Any Montanan who has been paying attention to state news knows that a herd in Bridger recently tested positive for brucellosis. What the same intelligent, well-read Montanan may not know is that, in response, Gov. Schweitzer proposed the creation of a 50 mile zone around the park, within which all livestock producers would be required to do more extensive testing than if the brucellosis free status were lost.

What does that mean?

For decades, Montana has had brucellosis-free status, which has allowed producers to ship certified livestock outside the state without testing, a major market and economic advantage. When this status is revoked, states acquire Class A, B, or C labels, which all mandate certain levels of testing and disease containment at producer expense. According to Gov. Schweitzer's sketchy plan, all cattle either entering or leaving the area would be required to be tested.

This plan is flawed for the following reasons:

Regionalization is a financial and logistical burden upon ranchers within the zone. While some federal and state leases are in the zone, the ownership type is predominantly private, with many ranchers running hundreds of head of cattle. Some ranchers within this area also own summer or winter pasture outside of the zone. These stewards would have to test their animals semi-annually once when they left for pasture and again when they returned home. This becomes expensive and is labor intensive.

Regionalization is discriminatory. Restricted ranchers trying to sell their cattle will inevitably receive lower prices, regardless of whether they have proven themselves brucellosis free. Additionally, blacklisting responsible stewards has the potential to impact the entire state. A "containment" zone may not convince individual states that Montana is brucellosis-free, and, as a result, bans may be placed on Montana cattle regardless of what part of the state they originated.

This plan is not a permanent solution because wildlife, particularly elk, that carry brucellosis do not stop at fence lines or imaginary boundaries. Gov. Schweitzer's proposal avoids the issue of overpopulated wildlife that leave park boundaries in search of food. Once this disease is allowed to permeate the zone, does the incident area simply increase? In no time, another "containment" zone would have to be created around the first zone, and so on.

By failing to create a plan that addresses diseased wildlife, public health is threatened. Humans are susceptible to brucellosis through the transmission of bodily fluids. The human form of brucellosis, called undulant fever, is chronic and incurable. For sportsmen and hunters, this poses a dangerous threat.

The regionalization boundary is arbitrary. The governor has proposed a zone of 50 miles around Yellowstone Park. The state's cases of brucellosis, to date, have been outside this designated radius.

Regionalization would lead to the urban development of agricultural areas. The ranch lands within this zone have been in agricultural production for a very long time. Over the decades, population growth and the resulting demand for housing have increased the number of subdivisions in these beautiful areas. Now, instead of a neighbor's pasture or woodland, swimming pools and tennis courts are found on the other side of the barbed wire fence. If ranchers in this zone are subjected to the unfair financial burdens of testing, re-testing, and market penalties associated with regionalization, they may give up and make their money the only way available to them is development.

Finally, this zone has the potential to set a very dangerous precedent on an international scale. By accepting this zone, the United States is saying that they will accept cattle from disease-free areas if good-faith disease containment can be proven. What will happen when countries like Mexico create zones around brucellosis positive areas just as Argentina is currently attempting with foot and mouth disease? Will the United States accept the influx in cattle that such a precedent would surely create? Such a policy measure would flood markets and forever change the face of agriculture in this country.

In the June 27 issue of The Livingston Enterprise, Melville rancher and Montana Democratic Party chairman Dennis McDonald called for a fresh approach to brucellosis prevention. While he correctly identified the need, the approach must be one that does not violate private property rights, ruin family businesses, or destroy the integrity of an area that has remained wide and open for centuries. Please, protect the livelihoods that have provided quality cattle and sustained wide open spaces for decades and say "no" to Gov. Schweitzer's regionalization plan.

Rachel Kinkie