Tuberculosis and Elk in Riding Mountain

Commentary, Environment, Robert Sopuck

Governments have neglected the problem and need to move quickly to rectify it. The very serious issue of elk and cattle tuberculosis in and around Riding Mountain National Park was the subject of a recent meeting sponsored by the Riding Mountain Biosphere Reserve. The Park is a “reservoir” of tuberculosis in elk and the disease is transmitted to cattle after they eat hay bales that elk have chewed.

Cattle producers, local government officials and staff are justifiably concerned about the disease’s possible effects on Manitoba’s multi-million dollar cattle industry. The issue has come to a head with recent restrictions placed by the United States Department of Agriculture on the movement of Manitoba breeding stock into the United States.

Local cattle producers are extremely upset about this situation. For many years, they have pled with relevant federal and provincial authorities to do something about TB and elk. Governments, as usual, have been slow to react. This may seem unfair to the many conscientious field staff who struggle hard with the attitudes of the “higher-ups” in Ottawa and Winnipeg, but it’s true. Only now, after the U.S. has acted, are government wheels slowly grinding into action.

First off the mark, the Manitoba government doubled the number of elk hunting permits. Parks Canada and Manitoba Conservation agree that hunting is by far the most cost-effective and efficient way to reduce the elk herd. Secondly, both these agencies plan to construct elk-proof bale yards, to separate the cattle from the elk. It’s a good step, but it lacks a sense of urgency. What is required is a greatly accelerated program to build bale yards as fast as possible. Other activities include studies to monitor elk movements and further testing of elk harvested by hunters. Governments cannot afford to wait. These actions must be taken right now.

The ramifications of this issue go far beyond cattle. Riding Mountain lies in the middle of an agricultural area and local people bear the cost of the national park. Ottawa’s parks policy prohibits nearly all forms of active management inside the park and this “non-management” is partly responsible for the state we are in now. Local people pay the price for far-off decisions made in Ottawa. Where have we heard this before? Not only that, cattle producers are being asked to bear the cost of additional testing for TB. This is patently unfair, given the responsibility that Parks Canada must bear for the fact that TB has become a crisis.

The cattle industry deserves credit for the good land management that we see around Riding Mountain. The gradual transition from grain to cattle has resulted in a beneficial conversion of fragile land away from annual crops to “permanent cover” under hay and pasture. This conversion has in turn improved wildlife habitat and water management. What happens to our land if we lose the cattle industry?

Not only that, the increase in beef production has sparked a “rural revival”, as farmers switch to high-paying cattle. This more labour-intensive activity encourages repopulation of communities and supports the associated infrastructure in transportation, animal health and the feed industry. All rural people have benefited from a revived cattle industry.

The TB issue is too important for our governments to go slow. They must move fast to contain and eliminate this outbreak. We’ll all be better off if they do.