Wheatland farmer Terry Jones contracted undulant fever, the human form of brucellosis, and experienced “indescribable pain” before he was diagnosed. He is now on a heavy regimen of antibiotics and pain-killing medications that doctors believe will eventually cure him. (Kurt Repanshek/National Parks Traveler)

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.”

Researchers at Michigan State University determined that brucellosis was responsible for eating away much of this ancient spinal column — some 1,000 years old — found in the city of Buthrotum in Albania. The original suspicion was that tuberculosis caused the degeneration, but DNA analysis pinpointed the bacterium Brucella abortus as the culprit. (Michigan State University )

“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.

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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:

Rebisoning the West

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.

Yellowstone Bison, America’s National Mammal, Stigmatized In Montana

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.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. It may be a rare disease, now — but that is because of stringent regulation of cattle. There is a reason we pasteurize milk and a reason that entire herds must be destroyed if one member is found with bruc. And there is a reason Montana is not happy about the Y’stone buffalo (and elk). Undulant fever is widely transmissible and has in the past deeply devastated this nation and many others. “The disease is an old one that has been known by various names, including Mediterranean fever, Malta fever, gastric remittent fever, and undulant fever. Humans are accidental hosts, but brucellosis continues to be a major public health concern worldwide and is the most common zoonotic infection.” [my emphasis] emedicine.medscape.com/article/213430-overview

    For more — and to understand the fight in the US to require pasteurized milk, and the other regulations, a good place to start is the relevant parts of Phylip Wylie’s _Generation of Vipers_(1943).
    In a 1967 piece in the Miami Herald, concerning crappy public health efforts in the 1930s, Wylie said, “…my wife contracted the also common undulant fever (from which she suffered intermittent agonies for seven years)… . [my emphasis] http://flashbackmiami.com/2014/11/05/paradise-lost-and-regained/

    It was not then and — absent serious and strong regulation — would not be today, a rare disease. This item should have emphasized that. To have undulant fever in a human at this date is Very Bad News.

    For further reading, this item contains good information, extensive cites, and a good biblio of on-line resources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brucellosis

    1. And the answer is more regulation? Really? As far as I know the US strictures against brucellosis are still in place. Isn’t this case of brucellosis an example of the failure of those regulations? And the delay in diagnosis an example of the failure of our heavily regulated medical system? Maybe you feel these failed regulations should have been implemented in India?

      It sounds like the problem is federal management of Yellowstone. As long as humans continue to eat food and go outside there will always be a risk of infection. The responsibility to be safe lies with each person. Regulation undermines that responsibility. This article is a helpful warning.

  2. This is the reason brucellosis is such a big deal, not because it causes cattle to abort their calf. In the early 1900″s alot of people contracted ungulate fever. The CDC set out to eradicate the disease. APHIS went around the country testing for the disease and if one animal in a farmers herd tested positive, the whole herd was quarantined and sent to slaughter, a practice that still holds true today. That is why the word brucellosis strikes fear in ranchers and farmers today. Brucellosis is a human health hazard not an abortion issue like the news reports.