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Vaccination of Wild Buffalo Fact Sheet

Summary: The current Interagency Buffalo Management Plan (IBMP) calls for the vaccination of buffalo residing in or migrating out of Yellowstone National Park (YNP) when a “safe and effective” vaccine and delivery system are available.

The stated purpose of the vaccination program is to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission between buffalo and cattle. The initiation of vaccination programs by the Montana Department of Livestock (DOL) and the National Park Service (NPS) are required for moving to stage 2 of the IBMP.

Under stage 2, buffalo should enjoy greater tolerance when migrating from Yellowstone National Park on both the north and west boundaries. However, because of the continued and indefinite presence of cattle on the Royal Teton Ranch near the Park’s north boundary, the IBMP will not move to stage 2 on the north side with the initiation of vaccination. Statements by Montana State Veterinarian Tom Linfield indicate that buffalo will not gain greater tolerance in the western boundary area because of the relative inability of the currently available brucellosis vaccines to reduce sero-prevalance in buffalo. Therefore, vaccination of Yellowstone buffalo for brucellosis based on the prescriptions of the IBMP will neither result in the progression to stage 2 of the Plan nor confer greater tolerance for buffalo exiting YNP now or in the foreseeable future.

Agency actions: In December of 2003, USDA APHIS issued an Environmental Assessment and Finding of No Significant Impact for vaccination with RB51 of calf and yearling buffalo captured on National Forest lands west of Yellowstone National Park.

Beginning in the spring of 2004, the NPS began vaccinating calf and yearling buffalo captured at the Stephen’s Creek Capture Facility with RB51 vaccine. However, the agency has no monitoring program to determine the efficacy of the vaccine. In August 2004, the NPS published a scoping notice for the remote delivery of RB51 vaccine to all calf and yearling buffalo in Yellowstone. The Montana Department of Livestock will likely approve their plans for subcutaneous vaccination of buffalo on the north and western boundaries of the Park with RB51 with the intention of beginning in spring 2005.

Issues: There are serious problems with all of the above-mentioned programs:

1. Vaccination is a tool best suited for domestic livestock: Vaccination of Yellowstone buffalo for brucellosis is inconsistent with accepted wildlife management techniques. Vaccination with a novel, more effective vaccine should be focused on cattle that graze in the Greater Yellowstone Area.

2. The efficacy of RB51 vaccine is not proven: Research indicates that RB51 will not provide significant protection to vaccinated buffalo. Laboratory studies have failed to demonstrate efficacy in terms of preventing infection or abortion. RB51 vaccine did not protect cattle from infection when exposed to an aborted infected elk fetus. It is highly unlikely that RB51 would prevent infection from elk in buffalo even if the vaccine were helpful in reducing transmission between buffalo.

3. Impact on the Buffalo: Subcutaneous vaccination requires that buffalo be captured and tested for brucellosis. Vaccination by this method will perpetuate capture operations even if they become otherwise unnecessary. Remote delivery vaccination, especially in Yellowstone National Park, will make buffalo wary of humans and potentially more aggressive toward park visitors.

4. Cost-Benefit Analysis: Due to the perpetual nature of initiating a vaccination program using the less than efficacious RB51 vaccine, the direct costs of the vaccination program will be significant and ever increasing. Continued focus on vaccination of buffalo will likely prevent research into other means of addressing the risks of transmission and rate of exposure among buffalo. Alternatively, the benefits of vaccination with RB51 are relatively non-existent. Due to the natural immunity buffalo develop to brucellosis and the rarity of brucellosis-related abortions in Yellowstone buffalo, it is unlikely that vaccination will have any impact on reducing the already negligible risk of transmission to domestic livestock. Brucellosis-proof cattle management plans and habitat based long-term solutions to brucellosis in Yellowstone buffalo will provide cost effective solutions with significant benefit to both buffalo and the livestock industry.

Solutions: Instead of focusing on vaccinating Yellowstone’s wild buffalo, efforts should be placed on the following common-sense solutions that will address the concerns of the livestock industry and allow for greater tolerance of buffalo in Montana:

1. Novel Vaccine and Cure Research: Development of effective vaccines and cures for cattle would provide livestock producers with the confidence they currently lack in the existing vaccines. Research into cures for brucellosis based on studies with canids and biophage research from the former Soviet Union show tremendous promise but have not been sufficiently studied.

2. Cattle Management: Brucellosis-proof management plans for cattle in buffalo habitat can be developed to insure zero risk of transmission. Temporal and spatial separation can be easily achieved between buffalo and brucellosis susceptible cattle by adjusting stocking dates, age, and sex classes of cattle in the GYA.

3. Brucellosis Regulation: Both the National Brucellosis Eradication Plan and the international regulations that confer brucellosis class free status could be adjusted to provide an exemption for the GYA.

Conclusion: Vaccination of Yellowstone’s wild buffalo for brucellosis is an ill-conceived idea that serves only to benefit the public perception of the agencies participating in the ongoing slaughter. The buffalo will see no direct benefit from the vaccination program. Sero-prevalance of Yellowstone buffalo will only drop to between 20 and 30 percent even under the agencies best estimates. Vaccination has never and will never result in the eradication of brucellosis from any species. Compounded with the difficulty of administering the vaccine to wild, free-ranging animals and the high probability of exposure to brucella bacteria from Wyoming feedground elk, it is clear that vaccination will not achieve agency goals. If the agencies are truly interested in further reducing the already low risk of brucellosis transmission between wild buffalo and cattle, then the focus should be placed on livestock management techniques applied to domestic cattle and habitat improvement for wild buffalo. This strategy would be far more cost effective than continuing to study and apply cattle vaccines to wild buffalo and lead to a solution that both the livestock industry and the buffalo can live with until a comprehensive buffalo restoration program is established.

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