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Livestock Disease Plan: Idaho, Wyoming seek control over animal disease

CODY, Wyo. (AP)--Wyoming and Idaho officials are asking the federal government to give states more authority over the animal disease brucellosis--a bid to break a political impasse over an issue that has hobbled the Yellowstone region's livestock industry.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture in January proposed making the region a disease management zone where cattle producers would face special testing requirements. The plan stalled after ranchers said cattle sold out of the so-called "hot zone'' would be stigmatized.

Cattle in the Yellowstone region of Wyoming, Idaho and Montana graze extensively on public and private lands also populated by elk, considered a pivotal carrier of the disease. At least seven times in the last decade cattle have been infected, drawing costly trade restrictions on livestock exports.

Idaho State Veterinarian Bill Barton said the states' approach would in some ways mirror the USDA plan, but give them more flexibility to protect their cattle producers.

"There are ways of achieving the same thing without the federal government delineating a zone,'' Barton said. "The end goal is to say that livestock is brucellosis free.''

Brucellosis can cause pregnant cattle and other animals to miscarry. The disease has been wiped out nationwide except around Yellowstone National Park, where it persists in elk and bison herds.

Montana is currently the only state in the country without a "brucellosis-free'' designation. Its livestock officials say they are waiting to see more details of both the state and federal plans.

Wyoming and Idaho have both lost then regained their disease-free designations in recent years. Wyoming is on the cusp of losing it again after an infection last year.

Federal officials have said their proposal would benefit the states, by allowing them to largely retain their brucellosis-free status even if infections occur in the Yellowstone area.

But Idaho and Wyoming want to avoid the stigma of a federal disease zone, by gaining authority to draw its boundaries and set rules for disease testing.

Officials said the rules would likely be similar to measures already in place in the three states following prior cattle infections. States also could opt to stay under federal control if they desired.

A USDA spokeswoman said her agency was amenable to the plan but could not fully commit to it. She said it would first seek feedback from ranchers inside the region and livestock officials nationwide.

Veterinarians from other states had already been skeptical of the federal plan.

Lyndsay Cole, with USDA's animal health service, said the government's goal was the same as that of the Yellowstone states: Declare cattle brucellosis-free nationwide, while guarding against transmissions of the disease from wildlife.

"There's already been ideas thrown out at the (Washington) D.C. level about how to do that,'' she said. "It should definitely be a partnership with the states. We don't want the perception that this is being decided behind closed doors.''

The long-term goal--so far elusive--is eradication of the disease in wildlife. No effective vaccine has been developed, nor is there a strategy for how one might be delivered.

The two states' alternative has not yet been presented to livestock groups or ranchers in the Yellowstone region, said Wyoming Assistant State Veterinarian Jim Logan.

That is expected to come after federal and state officials finalize a set of "core principles'' for brucellosis, which could come this week.

Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch'' Otter and Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal last month blasted the federal proposal, called the National Brucellosis Elimination Zone. They said in a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack that the USDA would be able to "walk away from the issue forever,'' without getting rid of the disease.

It's unclear how far the states' proposal would go in addressing the source of the disease in the region's elk and bison herds. To date, those efforts have been limited largely to disease testing on small numbers of wildlife and to killing bison that attempt to leave Yellowstone National Park--a highly contentious program that some members of Congress have vowed to end.



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