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Published November 02, 2010, 09:05 AM

Brucellosis found in bison on Ted Turner's Montana ranch

HELENA, Mont. — A bacterial disease has been found in Ted Turner’s 4,600-head bison herd in Montana, the first time brucellosis has been discovered in a domestic herd in the state in more than two years.

By: Matt Volz, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — A bacterial disease has been found in Ted Turner’s 4,600-head bison herd in Montana, the first time brucellosis has been discovered in a domestic herd in the state in more than two years.

The disease, which can cause pregnant bison, cattle and elk to abort their fetuses, was found in a 7-year-old cow about two weeks ago and is suspected in two other bison on Turner’s Flying D Ranch, state veterinarian Marty Zaluski said.

The cow has been killed and the other two have been quarantined from the rest of the herd pending test results, he said. They also will be slaughtered after the testing is completed.

Officials have tested most of the 2,000 animals on the ranch that livestock officials have determined could carry the disease. An investigation is under way to trace the source of the infection and to find out whether it has spread.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Zaluski said. “It is rare. We test tens of thousands of samples for brucellosis and we haven’t found this disease (until now).”

The Flying D is one of 15 Turner ranches in seven states with a total of 50,000 bison, according to Turner Enterprises Inc.’s website. Turner, a media mogul, also owns Ted’s Montana Grill, a restaurant chain in 19 states that specializes in bison.

The infection and the quarantine should not substantially affect the Flying D’s operations, even though the 4,600-head represent all the bison on the ranch, Turner Enterprises Inc. general manager Russ Miller said.

The herd is separated from 86 Yellowstone National Park bison that Turner took in last year, and those bison are disease free, Miller said.

Turner agreed to take care of the Yellowstone bison for five years after they were spared from a government slaughter program meant to guard Montana’s cattle industry against park bison infected with brucellosis. In exchange, Turner gets 75 percent of their offspring.

The quarantine on the Flying D ranch means the animals can only be taken from the ranch for slaughter, but they can still be used in meat products because brucellosis poses no human health risk, Miller and Zaluski said.

Even so, all the bison headed for slaughter from the Flying D will be tested for the disease before they enter the food chain, Zaluski said.

“We will follow whatever the state protocols are,” Miller said.

The quarantine will be in effect until the epidemiology investigation is complete, which could take months, Zaluski said.

Miller said he suspects the origins of the infection is wild elk on the ranch.

“We are always going to be in contact with brucellosis-infected wildlife and this will probably be a persistent problem that we and the rest of the ranchers will be faced with,” Miller said.

Brucellosis was last found in Montana in a Park County cattle herd in 2008, which led to the state losing its brucellosis-free status and other states restricting the importation of cattle from Montana. The brucellosis-free status was restored in 2009.

Zaluski said he does not believe this incident will result in another loss of status because the U.S. Department of Agriculture is in the process of a regulation change that would look at brucellosis regionally rather than statewide.

The changes have not yet been made, but he said there is evidence the USDA is embracing the concept after a similar instance of brucellosis earlier this year in Idaho did not result in that state losing its brucellosis-free status.

“The USDA, I believe, recognizes that we are going to have these infrequent instances where we have brucellosis-infected wildlife,” Zaluski said. “Our job is to try to prevent these spillovers and make them as infrequent as possible.”

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