Brucellosis in Yellowstone National Park’s bison herds long has been an issue that has prevented their ability to roam freely into Montana because they theoretically could spread the disease to cattle, and people. In a collaborative effort, National Parks Traveler and WyoFile have produced a robust package of multimedia stories that examines not just the brucellosis issue in Yellowstone, but efforts to repopulate areas of the American West with bison. These stories, beginning today, can be found at National Parks Traveler and WyoFile — Ed.
Terry Jones didn’t know what hit him when the first attack of undulant fever came.
Despite significant symptoms, doctors didn’t immediately diagnose that Jones, a Wheatland farmer, had been infected with the human form of the animal disease brucellosis. Perhaps that’s because it is rare in people and its various symptoms don’t point to an obvious cause.
Undulant fever, also called Bang’s disease, is marked by an irregular pattern of joint pain, fatigue, headaches, high fever, chills, drenching sweats, backache, weight loss, and loss of appetite. Jones experienced a lot of that. Lasting effects include arthritis, depression, and organ swelling, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.
While few people die from undulant fever, it can be chronic, and hence “is too serious to be dealt with lightly,” the federal agency says. Jones’ tale of infection and suffering underscores one reason why federal and state officials targeted the disease for eradication more than 60 years ago.
“I just knew I was sick,” Jones said. “I had pain like no other — indescribable pain between my hips. I had it in my back. It really hurt — an area as big as a cantaloupe or watermelon.”
He spent nine days in a hospital as doctors poked, prodded, and tested. “They did a CAT scan or X-ray to figure out whether I had kidney stones,” he said. “Doctors didn’t know what was going on.”
Almost three months later — still undiagnosed and out of the hospital — Jones fell on an icy walk and broke a rib. The pain from that injury did something funny — in time it migrated to the opposite side of his body from the fracture. Jones went back to the hospital.
The infection “landed in my spine,” he said. “It’s a real sharp pain. It’s not directed to any one spot.”
“They did another CAT scan and sent me straight to the neurosurgeons,” Jones said. An infectious-disease specialist made the diagnosis. “The doctor called me and said, ‘You’ve got brucellosis.’ They finally got the culture and finally got it right.”
Undulant fever used to be far more widespread – 6,400 cases were reported in 1947. A federal and state eradication program begun that same year has cut those to about 100 reported cases a year. Most cases, Jones said, probably involve large-animal veterinarians.
To prevent infection, farmers and ranchers should wear sturdy rubber gloves when aiding stock during birthing; hunters should do the same when field-dressing game. Raw milk and unpasteurized milk products also can spread the disease.
“It’s not certain where I got it,” Jones said. “It’s untraceable.”
Connecting the dots that lead to an infection can be difficult, even impossible, with this quirky disease.
It is possible that two years ago, during a trip to India, Jones had butter or cheese made from unpasteurized milk. He doesn’t think he got it from his farm. He has only horses, which can contract the disease, but no cattle, bison, pigs, or goats that more commonly carry it.
But last November during the hunting season he helped a friend field-dress and pack out an elk. During the excursion, he cut a finger. “A rough bone piece got me on the hand,” he said. “It bled.”
Even that theory of infection doesn’t fit neatly with what’s known about brucellosis and the Brucella bacteria that causes the disease. The bacteria is less virulent in elk during hunting season compared to the spring, when animals are giving birth.
“That elk would not have been in the prime time of her life to spread brucellosis,” Jones said, casting doubt on his own leading theory of infection.
Jones first noticed his undulant fever symptoms 10 weeks after retrieving the elk carcass, longer than the typical six-week incubation period. But undulant fever also can lie dormant before exhibiting itself. Nevertheless, Jones suspects the elk.
Today he is slowly healing, though he’s weak and tires easily. “My doctor is very attentive, since this is such a rare disease,” he said. “It’s everybody’s first try.”
He received intravenous doses of antibiotics over a 28-day period. “That pretty much drove that pain away from me.”
Now he’s taking oral antibiotics — five pills a day — and Ibuprofen. “They are very powerful,” he said of the medications. “[The doctor] has told me, more than likely, we’re going to wipe it out.”
Find the complete series here
At National Parks Traveler, you can find the series Bison In The West: Yellowstone National Park’s Brucellosis Stigma, including the following stories:
Putting bison back on the landscape.
Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo National Parks Have Much in Common
Though separated by 1,500 miles, Yellowstone and Wood Buffalo national parks have sprawling, rugged landscapes of wildness, which harbors wolves and bears, mountain lions and moose…and bison.
A disease brought to Yellowstone National Park in 1917 by livestock today stands in the way of bison freely roaming out of the park into Montana.
Fort Peck Tribes Blame Montana For Halting Successful Bison Program
Tribes at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana stand ready to quarantine Yellowstone National Park bison to ensure they’re free of brucellosis so they can be distributed to other tribes and organizations.
Bison: The Original Ecosystem Engineers
Bison graze landscapes differently that cattle, creating ecosystems that benefit birds and plants.
And coming up on Sunday: Rebisoning the West — at National Parks Traveler.