Bovine TB in wild elk a threat to cattle: experts

Bovine tuberculosis carried by wild elk is increasingly threatening some Manitoba cattle herds, prompting farmers to call for a cull of the animals before more cows succumb to the disease.

WINNIPEG — Bovine tuberculosis carried by wild elk is increasingly threatening some Manitoba cattle herds, prompting farmers to call for a cull of the animals before more cows succumb to the disease.

Cattle and wild elk have lived side-by-side for well over a century around Riding Mountain National Park in western Manitoba. But the elk have a habit of grazing in cattle pastures bordering the park, sharing hay with cattle and drinking from the same streams. That has led to a rise recently in the number of cases of bovine tuberculosis. In the last eight years, 43 elk and 10 white-tailed deer have tested positive for the disease.

Farmers say the threat is driving down the price of their exported cattle and forcing them to do costly testing of their herds. When a cow contracts the disease, a farmer can lose an entire herd and even some family pets. There is also concern that the disease could be passed to humans.

Farmers are calling for a cull of the elk — either by hunters or conservation officers — and increased testing of the carcasses.

Cattle producer Ray Armbruster says it might be distasteful to some, but the livelihood of farmers is at stake.

Some cattle herds in western Manitoba have already had to be destroyed and cattle from the region can be discounted at the American border, he said.

“It’s going to take a strategy of removing some wildlife,” says Armbruster, who regularly sees elk near his 160-head cattle farm.

“We’re dealing with an infectious disease … Tuberculosis has become endemic in certain species in the area. There is a tremendous amount of conflict here. Doing nothing can’t even be considered as an option.”

Some 200,000 cattle are tested every year at great expense and stress to the region’s farmers, he adds.

Manitoba Conservation Minister Stan Struthers concedes that the delicate balance between protecting the wild elk and the livelihood of cattle farmers has “always been a challenge.”

“You don’t want to turn Riding Mountain into a disease-ridden island,” Struthers says. “You want to make sure that the elk herd is healthy, then there is no disease to be passed on to cattle.”

The province has been stepping up its testing of elk and there is no need for a cull yet, he says. Conservation officers have asked hunters to turn in organs for testing and some diseased animals have been destroyed.

“There are a lot of steps we can take before we take drastic, extreme actions,” Struthers says. “We have been ratcheting up . . . our approach to this.”

Ryan Brook, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Calgary who has spent years researching the situation in western Manitoba, says it’s a complex problem with no easy solution.

A cull could put a dent in the number of diseased animals, he says, but it could also cause the wildlife to disperse, scattering the disease further afield.

“It could make the problem worse.”

There are other ways to limit the contact between elk and cattle, he adds. Many farmers have successfully installed high fencing around hay bales with the help of both levels of government. Others could still put hay bales around the edge of their property, feeding the elk without giving them reason to venture further onto pasture.

“It’s a very important problem and it’s not going to go away any time soon,” Brook says.

Len Derkach, an Opposition Conservative member of the legislature , says there’s more at stake than just the livelihood of Manitoba cattle farmers. Bovine tuberculosis can be passed on to humans, he says.

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