Why the buffalo can't roam

by Evelyn Schlatter

Since February, some 1,400 wandering Yellowstone bison have been killed under a controversial plan meant to prevent brucellosis – a livestock disease that causes spontaneous abortions – from spreading to cattle near the park. Five agencies are charged with keeping the park’s bison population within park boundaries, but the animals keep migrating out, entering private ranchland. Each winter, hundreds are either hazed back into Yellowstone, or rounded up for slaughter. Environmentalists have long decried the hazing and killing – and a new report from the Government Accountability Office confirms that the bison plan has serious flaws.

After a yearlong assessment, the GAO says that the agencies involved in the 2000 Interagency Bison Management Plan -- the Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, the Montana Department of Livestock and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks -- have failed to set clear goals and acted more as individuals rather than as a cohesive group. In addition, the agencies have not included key stakeholders, such as livestock industry groups, private landowners and conservation groups, in the plan.

As of late 2007, the agencies had yet to complete the first step of a three-step process meant to allow bison to winter in management zones outside the park. Robin Nazzaro, director of natural resources and environment with the GAO, says that the plan will eventually allow bison to freely range in areas west and north of park boundaries until spring, at which point they’d be hazed back into the park. But little progress has been made. Step one was supposed to be completed by 2002, and step two was supposed to include the development of a brucellosis vaccine that could be given without having to capture the animals. Step three was slated to begin in the winter of 2004.

Agency officials accept many of the report’s criticisms. Al Nash, spokesman for the National Park Service in Yellowstone, says, “We agree with it in the broadest sense. We’ve made some progress and we aren’t where we expected to be, but we’re going to work to get there.” Because of the deep snow of the past winter and the high numbers of bison in the park, many animals left to find food. And once they decide to leave the park, says Nash, it can be difficult to haze them back in.

Steve Merritt, information officer at the Montana Department of Livestock, says that with five agencies operating individually, the GAO’s findings are no surprise. “The (interagency bison) plan is probably as good as we can get until somebody comes up with something better.” He’s optimistic that the report will help bring people to the table.

Environmentalists say the plan has caused the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of bison. “The plan is an example of a lack of adapting to changed circumstances on the ground,” says Darrell Geist of the nonprofit Buffalo Field Campaign. “This past winter, there’s been an almost unprecedented slaughter of bison,” even in the face of growing public support for allowing the animals to range in areas outside the park where there are no cattle. There are no documented cases of bison transmitting brucellosis to domestic cattle in the wild.

“Taxpayers are spending $3 million a year for something that isn’t working and yet the agencies are still killing bison,” says Geist. “It makes one wonder what they’re basing their decisions on.”

The author is an intern for High Country News.

To access the GAO report, go to http://www.gao.gov/docsearch/repandtest.html [“Yellowstone Bison”]

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