Udder failure: The politics behind Montana’s brucellosis discovery

Some would say it was the massive bad karma from killing more than 1,600 of the nation’s last wild buffalo by state and federal agents—the largest bison slaughter since the white man’s extinction of the millions-strong herds that once roamed the Great Plains. Or maybe it was the on-going and vicious political struggle between Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the Montana Stockgrowers Association. But whatever or whomever one blames, the reality is that Montana will now lose its “brucellosis free” status with this week’s discovery of yet another herd infected with the disease that can cause cows to abort. Ironically, bison caused neither the latest nor the former infections.

Read the rest of this interesting article — Udder failure . . . by George Ochenski. Missoula Independent. I didn’t know about Schweitzer’s unsuccessful efforts to win support for change with the Montana Stockgrowers Association.



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  1. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    Some one tell me, why don’t they just require vaccination from the attenuated vaccine? Do they want them to be “antigen free” so only a synthetic protein vaccine would work? I think we should vaccinate the Yellowstone bison so they could not carry: I’d volunteer.

  2. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    There is not a vaccine for buffalo; however, even if there were, it wouldn’t remove the issue of buffalo control because – as has been pointed out so many times – this issue is not really about brucellosis.

    Also, I know you’d get a lot of resistance to vaccinating all the buffalo even if such a vaccine existed; that’s what you do to domestic animals – not wild ones. What you do is vaccinate cows and fence them in; however, that would cede grass to buffalo – and that’s really what the livestock industry doesn’t want (they don’t want to lose even the possibility of losing any grass that might be grazed on by cattle – even where no cattle currently graze). Brucellosis is merely a convenient excuse of disguising the real intentions of the livestock industry (people are pretty afraid of diseases – people on the other hand would be less likely to acquiesce to the policies if this is simply about promoting a land use ideology that keeps buffalo from roaming just so that cows might be used for the profit of the industry).

  3. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    That’s one reason why I increasing mention other diseases you can get from animals, insects, etc. It puts brucellosis into perspective –150 U.S. human cases a year and you don’t die. Almost all cases come from drinking raw milk and cheese from raw milk from border area cows and goats.

  4. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    I was really talking about cows, the buffalo vaccination was just my own fantasy.

    Why not just vaccinate the cows? I understand that this issue is not really about Brucellosis but is about grazing “rights” but why not take it on a more scientific level and make the grazing associations justify NOT vaccinating against what is now a very endemic disease? You could generate sub-unit vaccines that would be distinguishable from a total bacterial vaccine, or generate a whole bacterial vaccine with a secondary antigen that could be tested for, if necessary, to show sera-conversion was vaccine caused, not from a natural infection. This ain’t rocket science.

  5. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    In the case of the Corrientes in Pray, they apparently were vaccinated.

  6. TC Avatar

    Actually John, it approaches rocket science. It’s an intracellular pathogen geared towards evasion of the immune system, especially humoral (antibody) responses. Not to mention the cost and hoops to jump through to develop, test, validate, and get approved a new brucellosis vaccine for cattle or worse, wildlife (not that new vaccines are not on the list of long-term goals for a lot of people in government, academia, etc.). Nobody is going to pay for this to start with – $ millions – and it gets worse – vaccine trials with live animals and an HHS(CDC)/USDA select agent. By the way, cattle currently are vaccinated in much of the GYA – so are elk on Wyoming feedgrounds – and so may be bison in YNP in the near future. In none of these species are current vaccines anywhere near 100% efficacious in preventing abortion (the biggest disease transmission risk), let alone limiting infection, and elk are the worst of the lot with regard to vaccine responses. Currently there are ways to distinguish vaccinated cattle and bison from those infected naturally (one reason RB51 vaccine was green-lighted), although it gets murkier with elk and Strain 19 vaccine. If it were as simple as constructing and pumping out a new vaccine, it would have been done – a lot of very smart people have worked on this disease in the GYA for a long time. The administrative/regulatory courage (might as well say balls) to address the bigger picture management issues are what’s needed now – we all know what they are and they begin with closing down some things…

  7. Ralph Maughan Avatar

    Good points, TC.

    I’ve been following this controversy for eleven years now, and it just gets more and more stupid. So maybe a breaking point like all the dead bison, loss of class A status (maybe in Wyoming again too), reporters asking hard questions, etc., will encourage obvious management/regulatory changes, jump start research, etc.

    More generally, there is a great threat of many new zoonoses coming to North America. The Bush Administration is deaf, dumb, and blind on these too.

    Here is one of many web pages on zoonoses.
    Zoonotic Diseases Tutorial.

    . . . and on Emerging Infectious Diseases.

  8. john weis Avatar
    john weis

    thanks as well TC, that was very informative. my own experiences with brucella were years ago in micro and mostly i remember very small, clear colonies on the agar plates! I had not realized that generating a decent vaccine was so difficult. are there cattle that are naturally resistant, or are they all pretty much equally infected?

    Ralph, I wouldn’t count on much of anything jump starting research in this country from cow diseases to human cancers. The money pot is in the red and will be for a number of years. It took years to overcome Reagan’s death to research campaign: it won’t be any better climbing out of dubya’s mess either.

  9. Ralph Maughan Avatar


    I have to think that America is changing and never could a person so deliberately stupid, willful, and unreflective again achieve that office.

    I guess that’s a profession of faith.

  10. dbaileyhill Avatar


    “If it were as simple as constructing and pumping out a new vaccine, it would have been done…”

    It doesn’t take a ‘rocket scientist’ to see that the millions upon millions of dollars wasted killing bison could have been used in a productive manner—creating an effective vaccine. It’s a shameful waste of tax money so a bunch of mindless nitwits can play cowboy once a year, riding around in the (western costumes, on their horses and atv’s, killing bison. Wow, that’s a really effective. Especially since brucellosis isn’t a real issue. There are ranchers that whine and cry about the cost to vaccinate. Could that be that they don’t want to pay for the vaccine because proper cooking of the meat is all that is needed?

    “and it gets worse-vaccine trials with live animals…”

    I am guessing that you may not agree with animal testing. (Please correct me if that is not the case). How else would you propose testing for efficacy? Taking a chance at possibly sacrificing/harming a small number of cows, would be worth while for the greater good of the entire livestock industry. But they don’t bother because it is a non-issue. The feds have been testing and infecting cattle for years for other diseases.
    They should be concerned about CWD. How many people will suffer and die before the livestock cronies start doing something about it? Or will they do something? But heaven forbid they take responsibility for their non-action. Their greed leaves them with not a care about the safety of the consumer. As was proven when hamburger from diseased cows was sold to schools in Oregon earlier this year. That company promptly went out of business.
    The Montana Stock Grower’s Ass., seems to be ‘paying’ for their self-imposed ‘punishments’ (slaughter the entire herd),
    and for creating this out of control yarn about brucellosis. They have lied, contradicted those lies, spun tales, and in doing so they have excavated a very deep pit into which eventually they will fall. They will be the ones with eggs, no, cow crap on their faces when the public begins learning the truth.

  11. dbaileyhill Avatar

    I wish i could type faster… I see I missed a couple of posts while typing….

    Had the MDOL put their 3 million dollars per year into research each of the past 11 years…. If success was going to happen, it would have by now. There has been amazing success in the treatment of chronic illness in the last ten years. A good portion of that has been diseases that are a result of immune system disorders.ie. Crohn’s disease, fibromyalgia (sp?), rheumatoid arthritus, and other’s. Remecaid, an iv med is made from mouse enzymes.

  12. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    Jennifer McKee has written a dispicably bad piece that appears in the Billings Gazette today and the Missoulian that totally misrepresents the claims made by Buffalo Allies of Bozeman in its recent release; I’m trying to see if they misrepresented our spokesperson as well.

    She is claiming that we said in our release that brucellosis possibly being passed by Corrientes is the reason to pull out of the IBMP. First, we never say that brucellosis was caused by Corrientes; what we say is that they may have been (suggesting that a cattle cause needs investigation); secondly, we never say that this is the reason Schweitzer should pull out of the IBMP. Anyone who reads the release with any care will note that we say that this incident is evidence that the bison management is killing buffalo at exorbitant cost while not preventing brucellosis in cattle. The corriente suggestion (it’s not even a claim) was tangential to the main argument – merely a suggestion in the face of indisputable knowledge that buffalo weren’t involved in this incident (in part because they were being killed in the Gardiner basin).

    See http://billingsgazette.net/articles/2008/06/19/news/state/33-cattle.txt.

    I’m so angry. By the way, Jennifer McKee’s email address is jennifer.mckee@lee.net .

  13. Virginia Avatar

    I have just sent an email to Jennifer McKee regarding her misrepresentation of the brucellosis issue. I will see if her response is just as interesting as the response I received from Brett French regarding his report about the wolf attacks at the ranch in Montana in which no one really observed the offending wolves.

  14. Robert Hoskins Avatar
    Robert Hoskins

    Folks, I don’t think McKee’s story is as bad as you’re making out. At least she’s challenged the DOL and livestock industry on the issue, and all that has come out of it is denials that Corrientes were involved, with no proof. The real issue is that the agencies are sitting on the information regarding the two brucellosis incidents and are refusing to release it. We need to get that information.

  15. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    I’m not that interested in the corrientes here in my anger; what I’m angry about is that she has totally misrepresented the words in our press release; it has made a claim about Buffalo Allies of Bozeman that we don’t make and an argument that we don’t make. As a new group, this is not acceptable to us, especially when she had a copy of our press release.

    We simply do not say that corrientes were the cause; we also absolutely never use corrientes as being the reason to pull out of the IBMP. That’s just really shoddy journalism – now the first time anyone has heard of our group, we are tied to a specious argument we didn’t make. Corrientes aren’t a reason one way or the other to pull from the IBMP – rather the irrelevance of wasteful bison management to the whole brucellosis issue, whatever the cause in bison, is what’s at issue.

    For us, this isn’t simply a correction; as we are trying to organize on the issue, it’s important that we not come off as jumping on any argument that might make our point. As a movement, we are marginalized enough; this is just the kind of thing that serves to do so more.

  16. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    This is what I just wrote to Jennifer McKee:

    Ms. McKee,

    I am writing on behalf of myself and not the group I am a member of – Buffalo Allies of Bozeman – regarding your article today that appeared in some newspapers on the brucellosis issue as it relates to corriente roping cattle. Though I am writing for myself alone, I am quoted in the press release that we sent out, and I helped edit and distribute the release.

    I believe there is a severe misrepresentation of what’s said in the release, and I hope to set the record straight – hoping that the papers will correct the mistake or at the very least that you will give written acknowledgment of the error.

    You write about Bozeman Allies of Buffalo:

    “Another wildlife group, Buffalo Allies of Bozeman, put out a statement calling for Gov. Brian Schweitzer to pull out of the current brucellosis management plan because Corriente, not bison, were behind the outbreak.”

    In fact, this is wrong on two counts.

    What we say in our press release regarding corriente is the following:

    “The current rhetoric from state officials refuses to consider that diseased Mexican Corriente roping cattle may have been the source of the outbreak in Pray. Let’s stop pouring tax dollars into a failed plan, where we spend more than what Montana’s economy will suffer for losing its brucellosis-free status.”

    First of all, we don’t say that corriente were involved; we say that they may have been the source of the outbreak. Secondly, and more importantly, we never say anywhere in the release that Schweitzer should pull out of the management plan because of corriente, especially since we don’t identify corriente as the cause. What we say here and elsewhere in the press release is that bison weren’t involved since they have not been in the Paradise Valley near that ranch in a long time, that the continued slaughter and hazing of bison did not prevent brucellosis, and that the IBMP has cost more over time to implement than it will cost Montana for losing its class free status (especially absurd given that buffalo were certainly not the cause – and note that we do not identify the cause and merely tangentially suggest what might have been the cause).

    So, we never say that corrientes “were behind the outbreak”; we never call on Schweitzer to pull out of the plan “because Corriente” were behind it. All that’s correct is that we have called on Schweitzer to pull out of the plan and that we believe it’s not possible that bison were behind the outbreak.

    As a new grassroots group in Bozeman, this is the first mention of our relatively new group in the newspapers that this appeared in; it’s not helpful to our group to have our press release and therefore our group misrepresented. I ask again that you would correct this for us.

    Thank you for your research on corrientes; I’m not sure that what you’ve written proves definitively that the cattle was not involved; however, I did find the piece informative. If anything, it only deepens the mystery of the source. However, no matter what, what’s been happening with cattle and brucellosis in Montana only further is exposing the absurdities of the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

    Most Sincerely,
    Jim Macdonald

  17. moos Avatar

    I read Dan Brister’s article in the West Yellowstone News from a link here. It appeared to be blaming Corriente. I have been hearing rumours of the Corriente connection since last May 2007. I’ve also heard that it was a Republican conspiracy. My only wish is for the truth to come out at some point. Soon would be nice, but I’m not holding my breath. What has happened consistently is someone will come up with a piece of information/mis-information and run with it. That has included reporters (TV & print), bloggers and letter to the editor writers. The worst has been people who comment on stories. When reading something from someone who is way off base, you usually recognize it. But some folks take pieces & twist them. When I was interviewed in October by Jennifer McKee, all she was interested in was “how many cows” I had left. I told her, “enough”. When she asked again, I told her “too many.” That had no bearing on the story she was supposed to be reporting.

    I think that the most unfortunate thing is that we were dealing with a disease, not an enemy. That sure isn’t how it’s played out.

  18. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    McKee has written back saying that she believes her story was “essentially correct”, without rebutting what is clearly and essentially incorrect. Though, she said she does appreciate my concerns.

    She says she’s writing a story about the IBMP and this case – not sure I should press my point further since I’d end up repeating myself. If she finds what I say here, so be it. I do regret saying “despicable” (it was late at night before bed, my baby was waking up, and I was irate to read this just before bed).

    It’s a little aggravating, however, that she stands by what she wrote when she’s been clearly corrected by the record of what we actually said.

    I also heard from Chris – mentioned in the article – who believes he was misrepresented as well – not in saying he was unaware of the source of the corrientes but rather in saying that the press release was issued BECAUSE he had heard that the source was corrientes. That’s not at all why the press release was issued; we issued it because we wanted to hold Schweitzer accountable for the buffalo slaughter that has been totally useless.

  19. Linda Hunter Avatar

    Jim MacDonald . . just a note. Misrepresentation to your group is unfortunate but you must just go on. This is something that happens for various reasons on a daily basis to people. Be careful what you say and re read your press releases very carefully because if someone can jump to conclusions about what you say they will. Sometimes it is not even the reporter’s fault. . some editor may have made the statement stronger to stir controversy. And in the end it is only important to you, bottom line. As you get to be more of a public figure fighting for what you believe in you cannot get to upset about the small battles.

  20. Linda Hunter Avatar

    Jim you and I wrote at the same time. Keep up the good work.

  21. dbaileyhill Avatar

    Jim Mac,

    I know how frustrating it is to be misrepresented. And i have to admit that i didn’t think it was possible to be so angered about what i dealt with. Although i believe it is ‘one of those things’ that happen when we decide to make public, our honest and good intentions, it is no less infuriating and cuts right to the core of our being. My experience was about 8 1/2 years ago but it still angers me to this day. However i have learned to put my energy into doing things that bring me joy, which was not any easy task. Much easier to say than do. Please do not be discouraged. Thank you, to you and your group for doing a great job.

  22. Jim Macdonald Avatar

    This is hardly the first time this has happened to me. When I lived in Washington, DC, I was heavily involved in organizing in the local anti-war movement. We organized a lot of things all the time. It was so difficult to get press coverage that we didn’t usually bother to try. Those who did ended up doing ridiculous stunts to get noticed.

    However, I was from time-to-time interviewed – in the Washington Post some times, some minor news services, a feature in Mother Jones, was once quoted by Reuters, and was on the radio at least a few times (was interviewed also several other times where my interview wasn’t in print), and was on television several times as well. In particular, the Reuters guy during the Republican National Convention took something I said way out of context. Even then, the quote was accurate, though (this is the worst case I’ve seen of something I’ve been directly involved with).

    What bothered me here so much is that it was so inaccurate – not something that is accurate at all – and that this is the first mention of our group outside of Gallatin County. It’s not like we were an established group; we are actively trying to establish ourselves, and we come off as pretty stupid – like we are an activist group just jumping at the theory d’jour to support our cause. If we had a record to fall back on, it would have been better. If it had been accurate, so be it.

    We’re talking about ways to defend ourselves and at the same time hold the press accountable. The new media makes a lot of rebuttal possible.

    But, of course, we’ll keep plugging along with all our effort. The good news is that we’re starting to be noticed in this area, and it’s important that the story out of Montana be that locals are more than the ignoramuses that run the livestock industry, that people are and have been on the ground taking action to support what BFC has been doing so well for so long.

  23. TC Avatar

    Dbaileyhill – what I meant regarding money is, generally it either comes from pharmaceutical companies (their veterinary division, if we’re talking veterinary products), and for them to invest in development and validation of new products (including vaccines), cost/benefit analyses need to show potential for significant profits generally speaking. There would be no such profits for brucellosis vaccines. If alternative funding (governmental) needs to be sought that will be a hard fight in these tight times. Not enough of an issue on a national level and not enough public or congressional interest when gas approaches $5/gallon, unemployment sky-rockets, food prices sky-rocket, etc.

    And regarding animal testing, no, not against it, my point was this is a Select Agent – working with the field strain of Brucella abortus in challenge studies during a vaccine trial requires BSL-3 facilities and certified investigators, and the few facilities that are available that can handle large critters like cattle, elk, and bison are awful difficult to get access to, and again, those studies are incredibly expensive. Just a lot stacked against rapid development of better vaccines for cattle, elk, or bison – not saying it can’t be done, but don’t count on one in the near future. I still think other approaches are more logical and likely to work if we can live with short-term pains for long-term gains.

  24. dbaileyhill Avatar

    Thank you for taking the time to explain and clarify.
    Logical solutions would certainly go along way. What worries me is that by the time it is allowed, it will most likely be too little too late.

  25. Brian Ertz Avatar

    George Orwell:

    Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper.

  26. bob jackson Avatar
    bob jackson

    When my “story” of Griz being killed because of outfitters illegally salting went national I NEVER had a misquote or misinterpretation of my account of events reported in the press. This happened with many interviews and over three years. It didn’t matter if it was the LA Times or the smallest of newspapers.

    I think this occurred because I always initiated helping the reporter with photos, doing the grunt work of lining up other people he could quote, the offer to get back with the reporter to answer back on what the “opposition” was saying to this reporter, letting them know exactly where I would be and how I could be reached over the next 24 hours if they needed me for anything, letting the reporter know I could talk from a pay phone (no chance of tapping and exposing the reporter) etc.etc.

    Not that Dick Cheney’s machine didn’t have media “plants” who would call, but these folks were fairly easy to figure out within a minute into the interview. Then it was directing questions back onto them, letting them know they could quote me on an item if they would ask the Park Service or whomever the associated question. These reporters never followed through with sleaze, I think mostly because they would be exposed by the next reporter for what they slanted. They knew I had the counter answer and it would come out.

    With those reporters Yellowstone had long term “business” relations to give them the scoop before others (in other words the reporter owed his or her status and existence to them) …such as different individuals in maybe the Billings Gazette, Livingston Enterprise or Bozeman Chronicle…after they wrote an article without contacting me, but using Park administration only for quotes…I would call up this reporter and respectfully let them know more. If they had been really bought off then it didn’t take long to figure this out so it was on to their editor. The effect was the Parks propaganda was nullified and the reporter was afraid to write other stories without contacting me as part of the story.

    The end result was the National Park Services Washington Public Affairs office cut their life line to Yellowstone’s Public Affairs office. One would think Yellowstone’s Public Affairs office could still have “handled it” with all their staff and budget but they were too slow for the reporters needs. Besides the Park administrators had been too use to putting out “info” that didn’t have accountability attached to those quotes. They depended on the story to go away and reporters not having enough for another story to “call them on it”. When the answers and thus the reporter’s knowledgeable questions allowing for come back accountability in the SAME article the Park Public Affairs was shot down repeatedly in the press.

    My supporter, PEER, on seeing how I disseminated info to the press gave me the green light to talk as I wished. As a client to a law firm where there is so much at risk for even one misquote I knew I was on the right method of media assistance.

    Not that it won’t work all the time but I could figure 8-10 hours of research and gathering information for every ten minutes of interview time. A lot of this had to occur before they even called. Anticipation of questions and collaborating data and referrals ready to be contacted meant the reporter could have it all at their disposal in the 2-3 hours some of them were limited to before going to their editor and the press. It really helped to get the accurate story out there.

    With novice reporters such as what apparently Jim encountered I would either expand on what they asked to allow them to understand their question or have them respectfully repeat back to me what they thought I said. I set the guidelines, in the name of helping each other, for the interview right away in the conversation so they wouldn’t get impatient later on. All this had two results. They knew we both cared to get it right and they had more conviction if the editor above them wanted to change (as compared to reduce in size) the thrust of the story.

    Not to say it would work for others interviews but the reporters I encountered were all under very narrow time frames to meet deadlines. Only the Washington Post and LA TIMES had researchers assisting the reporter or had the infrastructure in place where the reporter’s editors got into the act with calling me. Even these papers had to depend on me for photos (always give them a choice), appropriate reports I had written they could quote from and questions I suggested they ask the Park Service, outfitters or WYO. Game & FISH to get the info they needed.

    It took a lot of work for every interview but the reporter appreciated it by not putting in info that they didn’t understand.

    Just some thoughts that might help others.


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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Ralph Maughan