a new documentary from Rochner Films
Brucellosis is a contagious bacterial disease that causes abortion in wildlife and livestock. Brucella abortus is found in elk, bison, and livestock in the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) and is transmitted between species when feeding occurs near infected birthing fluids. Deemed a "political disease," it affects both livestock and wildlife and creates social, economic, biological, and political complications for wildlife managers, livestock officials, and livestock producers.
Winter Range tells a dramatic narrative that centers on the conflict between wildlife and people who share the scenic landscapes of the Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA). The film features cattle producers in the Paradise Valley, just north of Yellowstone, as central characters who will reveal why brucellosis is a major economic and political problem for those whose livelihoods depend on disease-free cattle. Wildlife managers will also be introduced to share their knowledge of the disease and explain why managing brucellosis in wildlife is a very complex and often draconian task. The disease has forced Montana into a delicate, sometimes unsuccessful, balancing act of preserving the abundance of wildlife that is unique to the landscape while supporting a major crux of the state economy.
Winter Range will explore the implications and consequences of rising brucellosis levels in elk in the GYA and the tensions that this creates between ranchers and wildlife who co-habitat in one of the major brucellosis hot spots in the GYA, the Paradise Valley. During the cold winter months, elk move down to the lower elevations of the valley to feed on native winter vegetation. Consequently, this movement brings elk in contact with cattle at a time when brucellosis transmission is most critical between the months of February and June. The winter and spring months therefore become a trial of preventing elk from comingling with cattle and spreading the disease. Research has also shown that brucellosis is increasing in these populations of elk and has spread to areas where it has never existed before, which introduces a central theme of the film: brucellosis is no longer a feeding ground problem. It now survives in the wild and poses a new, more challenging containment threat in the GYA.
At the heart of the problem is a conflict between people and wildlife and the politics of how to keep this disease under control. Winter Range will showcase the lives and perspectives of people who have the most to lose and will introduce an ecological crisis that is unique only to the GYA. It will take the viewer through the brucellosis transmission period of 2012 to capture the elk and livestock conflict and to show the measures taken to prevent an outbreak.
The Greater Yellowstone Area (GYA) is the last remaining brucellosis hotspot in the U.S. The disease was introduced to the area in the early 1900's by imported cattle and was consequently transmitted to native wildlife in the GYA. Efforts to fight the disease were initiated in 1934 with the National Brucellosis Eradication Program. From the eradication program's inception, over $3 billion has been spent on eradication measures. Some of the goals and efforts of the program are surveillance, quarantine, herd depopulation, herd management, and vaccination efforts. Currently, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana are all actively engaged in managing and containing brucellosis in wildlife and preventing its spread to livestock.
The elk feedgrounds of Western Wyoming are some of the major brucellosis transmission sites in the GYA. Since 1910, Wyoming has maintained 23 artificial feedgrounds to feed and segregate elk populations from cattle during the harsh winter months. Now the feedgrounds are the source of a notorious political debate: conservationists want to remove them but ranchers rely on them to protect their cattle from infection. These seemingly well-intentioned feedgrounds have transformed into brucellosis hotspots over the last century where hundreds of elk aggregate each winter. More recently, Brucellosis has been found to survive in non-feedground populations in Montana and Wyoming known as winter range elk.
In the last decade, brucellosis infection has been increasing in winter range elk groups with infection rates similar to those on the feedgrounds. Now pockets of the disease are found in areas of Montana and Wyoming where it historically hasn't been able to survive. These newer exposure incidents are a consequence of feedground-like behavior where elk aggregate in large groups on private and public lands during the winter, which is why Montana and Wyoming are experiencing an increasing problem of preventing infected winter range elk from comingling with livestock.
A modern vaccine has been cited as a potential solution to the problem, but given that the pathogen was listed a bioterrorism agent post-9/11, research for a vaccine has been stymied by strict federal regulations. Without a vaccine on the horizon, no unified solution exists across the three states of the GYA, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming, to deal with the brucellosis containment challenge. Surveillance and Wildlife and livestock segregation are the most effective management strategies to date and yet an estimated 100,000 elk are free to roam the GYA and spread the pathogen between Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.
To share what it is like to live with brucellosis in one's backyard and to give the viewer an intimate look into an ecological problem native only to the GYA. Winter Range will document the precautions and hardships of being a cattle producer in a brucellosis hot spot, and will introduce the surveillance and containment challenges that wildlife managers face when attempting to prevent elk and cattle conflicts.
The following have generously provided support and funding to the Winter Range project:
Cece Mazzei Cobar
Howard C. Shaw III
Gianna & Kipjaz Savoie
Rochner Films is a boutique production company specializing in science and natural history films.
Founder Erik Rochner is an MFA candidate in Science and Natural History Filmmaking at Montana State University at Bozeman.
Winter Range is coming soon. Use the contact form to send any questions or comments, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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