MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer HELENA
Plans for a separate cattle zone around Yellowstone National Park are back on the table at the Department of Livestock but only as one of several potential ways to manage a troublesome livestock disease. The so-called "split-state status" was revived by the Montana Board of Livestock during a Tuesday meeting. The board told the state veterinarian to investigate the idea as one of several possible solutions to deal with brucellosis outbreaks. Montana ranchers are on the verge of losing their prized brucellosis-free status after another case of the disease was found in the state. It will now be more difficult for them to export cattle to other states. Tuesday's vote was even endorsed by the Montana Stockgrowers Association. The group's executive vice president said members still oppose split-state status but they welcome the idea of putting the decision with state veterinarian Marty Zaluski. Errol Rice said he doesn't think Zaluski will end up endorsing the idea after a careful review of the options. "We still don't feel like split state is the way to go," Rice said. The controversial plan was originally pitched by Gov. Brian Schweitzer. It was scuttled late last year amid criticism from the Stockgrowers Association a group traditionally more cozy with Republicans than Democrats. The Montana Cattlemen's Association, much friendlier with Schweitzer, has endorsed the idea all along. Schweitzer says Montana needs to establish a more intensive management zone around Yellowstone National Park. He says ranchers far from the brucellosis problem in that region should not have to undergo the same testing requirements as those next to the park. "The reality is that a very small portion of Montana has a brucellosis reservoir," Schweitzer said. Veterinarians from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho have all complained that their ranching industries will continue to be hit with the disease until it is eradicated from Yellowstone wildlife. State officials are talking about working with federal officials on a way to vaccinate bison in the park, while pushing for a more effective vaccine. They also want a better method to track the occurrence of the disease in wildlife around the park. They also want to change federal rules they say were built to prevent transmission of the disease among livestock, and now only penalize ranchers since wildlife have become the disease carriers. The Stockgrowers Association does appear more open to the idea of a separate management zone around Yellowstone, recently embracing such a notion in a press release. But they are calling it a "hot zone" and Rice says it is different in many ways from the original "split-state" proposal. Rice says his group wants to find the right solution, and is pleased the veterinarian has been given free rein to look at all options free from political pressure. Schweitzer says he thinks the Stockgrowers have come under increased pressure from ranchers around the state who don't want to be penalized for a disease around Yellowstone. "Had we enacted what they call a hot zone and I call splitstate, then this most recent outbreak of brucellosis would not have affected the rest of the state," Schweitzer said. The Board of Livestock on Tuesday also said it wants to set up a joint task force with the state Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to help design better wildlife disease management policies. Schweitzer also wrote a letter Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticizing Wyoming for running feedlots for elk that some say are breeding grounds for the disease.