USDA announces outdoor research on brucellosis

Brucellosis research will expand to outdoor settings in the greater Yellowstone area, the United States Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday.

USDA under secretary Greg Ibach announced the new research projects in front of stacks of hay at a ranch north of Belgrade. Ibach said the new testing guidelines will help the effort to eliminate brucellosis from the United States.

“This policy change will allow us to manage it and provide oversight in the research projects and be able to start the march to a solution,” Ibach said.

About two decades ago, Ibach said, outdoor research on brucellosis stopped because of concerns of how the disease affects people. That meant research could only be conducted on infected animals in contained, indoor settings.

Allowing research to happen outdoors means the USDA, along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Department of Homeland Security, could better identify what Ibach called “an efficacious treatment that will initiate immunity.”

“Obviously we need real-life conditions,” Ibach said. “We need elk to be out in their semi-natural habitat. We need bison to be able to function in more of a natural habitat. Being able to move those out of containment into a controlled environment is going to be very important.”

Brucellosis is an infectious disease that apears in elk, bison and cattle. It could be transmitted to humans via undercooked meat or unpasteurized dairy products, causing a prolonged fever, per the CDC. But it poses a greater risk to animals.

If infected, animals could have reduced milk production, weak offspring or spontaneous abortion, according to the USDA.

Ibach said brucellosis has been wiped out from most of the country except in the greater Yellowstone area. Bison and elk are known carriers of the disease in the region.

Ranchers worry of the disease infecting cattle. There have been no recorded transmissions of the disease between bison and cattle in the wild. Elk have transmitted the disease, though.

Sen. Steve Daines, who is running for reelection against Gov. Steve Bullock, and Rep. Greg Gianforte, who is running for governor against Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, were both at Wednesday’s announcement.

“This is ensuring that we’re protecting our cattle here in Montana from brucellosis,” Daines said, “which is a significant threat to the safety of the food supply chain here in Montana and around the country and around the world for that matter.”

“In an industry that’s already under price pressure,” Gianforte said, “the threat of brucellosis in our production herds just adds the risk of additional costs and economic disaster for these producers.”