BISON RESEARCH SHUT DOWN

Zinke call led to inspection at Corwin Springs facility
By: 
Johnathan Hettinger -
Thursday, May 17, 2018

Photos courtesy National Park Service

Bison graze in Lamar Valley of Yellowstone National Park in May 2015.

A bison calf follows a cow on the Little America Flat in Yellowstone in May 2005.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has halted its research on bison at its Corwin Springs facility, after disbanding the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s Wildlife/Livestock Disease Investigations Team.

The decision to halt the research — effective in July 2017, according to documents obtained by The Enterprise — came months after APHIS found violations of research rules at the facility in March 2017.

Instead, one part of the facility is potentially going to be a part of a new bison quarantine program, transferring bison from Yellowstone that was announced Wednesday. Another pen no longer being leased by APHIS is part of a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service, said USDA-APHIS spokeswoman Joelle Hayden.

Currently, there are 62 bison at the facility that were a part of the research going through the quarantine process.

A written account of the inspection obtained by The Enterprise shows that the federal inspector said a call from Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to then-acting USDA secretary Mike Young led to the inspection.

The inspector said she was conducting the inspection because “no one was aware that this research was occurring” and comments from the inspector “felt suggestive that there was underhand methods at work in the implementation of this program,” according to the account.

The written account of the inspection was among a number of documents that were obtained by the Buffalo Field Campaign, a nonprofit organization based in West Yellowstone that works to protect wild bison.

The documents also include implementation plans to disband the team, a written account of the inspection by Montana Department of Livestock’s Assistant State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski and a response to a violation notice.

The Buffalo Field Campaign filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the facility in October and filed a lawsuit after it said APHIS did not fully respond to the request. The organization is currently working with APHIS to provide documents in batches.

Buffalo Field has already received two batches and expects at least two more, said Darrell Geist, habitat coordinator.

March 2017 inspection

Montana Assistant State Veterinarian Tahnee Szymanski didn’t know what type of inspection she was walking into at the USDAAPHIS Corwin Springs bison facility in March 2017.

The Montana Department of Livestock sent Szymanski to express support for the research being conducted by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service to help control Brucellosis, a disease harming bison in the Greater Yellowstone area that could also be transferred to livestock and humans.

USDA-APHIS had been injecting bison at the facility with GonaCon, effectively a birth control for bison, to test whether it would be a successful control for the disease.

In bison and livestock, Brucellosis causes abortions, infertility and lowered milk production, but bison generally recover from the disease over time. The research was testing whether not allowing infected bison to reproduce for a few years could limit the

affect Brucellosis

has.

W h e n transferred to humans, the disease can cause high fevers. It is transferred to humans when they eat undercooked meat or drink unpasteurized milk from infected animals.

However, Szymanski quickly got the background from USDA-APHIS inspector Dr. Victoria Guilfoil — senior government officials were not aware that this research was occurring and Guilfoil suggested that Dr. Jack Rhyan, the USDAAPHIS veterinary officer who oversaw the research at Corwin Springs, used “underhand methods” in the implementation of the research, according to Szymanski’s written account of the inspection.

“Dr. Guilfoil than (sic) alluded

that the ‘Secretary of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) called the Acting Secretary of Agriculture

to ask about the program,”

Szymanski wrote. “When

the Acting Ag

Secretary (Mike

Young) contacted Jack

Shere (U.S. Chief Veterinary Officer leading

APHIS’ veterinary services program), he was

not aware of the research. Jack Shere then reached out to the head of the select agent group, who also did not

know about this

research.”

Select agent rules

Because of its ability to transfer between humans and livestock, Brucellosis is considered a select agent, which means there are special rules about how the research must be treated. These rules include that “if an entity is engaging in experimental infection of animals with B. abortus, the work falls under the select agent requirements, and animals must be maintained in an approved Biosafety Level 3 Ag facility,” according to Hayden. The only BSL-3ag facility capable of housing bison is in Ames, Iowa.

The inspection found the

research was in violation of

these rules, according to a letter

Rhyan wrote responding to the

violations. It is unclear what the

exact violation was because the

original violation letter detailing

what these violations were is currently under review for release

from APHIS, Buffalo Field’s Geist said.

When contacted for comment Dr. Rhyan said, “Thanks for your interest.” He then referred The Enterprise to the APHIS public affairs team.

When asked whether the team had been violating select agent rules, USDA APHIS spokeswoman Hayden said, “The team was primarily investigating the use of GonaCon, a contraceptive, as it might relate to controlling Brucellosis in bison. The study reached the limits of the investigation given the current select agent regulations and the facility housing the research.”

Attempts to reach Szymanski and Dr. Ryan Clarke, an APHIS veterinarian who was also present during the inspection, were not successful.

But in a response to a letter of violations, Rhyan, who oversaw the project, wrote that, “We never experimentally infected any animals with B. abortus. We have placed seropositive animals in the same pen with seronegative animals to observe whether or not natural transmission would occur.”

Rhyan wrote that this was not a violation of select agent rules because it was “identical to the 6 year study we did in Yellowstone National Park observing whether or not and when transmission would occur between seropositive and seronegative animals.”

‘Underhand methods’

However, in the inspection, Guilfoil implied Rhyan broke the rules, and other employees were not at fault, Szymanski wrote.

“She then went on to suggest that a ‘certain individual in Colorado hadn’t crossed their T’s and dotted their I’s.’ While she expressed this sentiment or something similar multiple times during the interview, at one point she pointedly referred to Jack Ryan (sic) in Colorado being at fault for this,” Szymanski wrote.

The letter Szymanski wrote also said “Dr. Guilfoil ‘alluded that Dr. Ryan (sic) maybe just ‘didn’t include’ or failed to mention’ that there would be seronegative animals involved.’”

“This statement felt suggestive that there was underhand methods at work in the implementation of this program,” Szymanski wrote.

Experiments in Fort Collins, Colorado, were also ended when the team was disbanded. These experiments included research on brucellosis in elk and bison, as well as disease research on feral swine.

“Dr. Guilfoil then suggested that ‘when you let your boss get embarrassed, it is a bad thing, and someone needs to have their hand slapped,’” Szymanski wrote.

Rhyan, who is based in Fort Collins, has since been reassigned “to oversee the writing of publications related to the completed research” and work as a pathologist on special projects, according to the implementation plan.

“The team members were reassigned to other roles with in USDA APHIS upon conclusion of the studies,” Hayden said.

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