Will the bison killing resume next winter?

  With half of Yellowstone's bison now hanging in meat lockers or filling the bellies of grizzly bears, the spring of 1997 was supposed to end the "buffalo war" outside America's oldest national park. But though the guns are silent following the largest slaughter of wild bison in the 20th century, a bitter debate continues.


The latest focus is an effort by Montana officials, the Park Service, and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to finish by July an environmental impact statement on how to manage bison that leave the park.


The EIS will replace an interim plan that allowed Montana's Department of Livestock to kill nearly 1,100 animals this winter, including hundreds that conservationists and park officials say posed little or no brucellosis threat to cattle (HCN, 2/17/97). Although some scientists believe half of Yellowstone's bison carry the disease, only a small fraction of carriers become infected.


Conservationists doubt that state and Park Service officials can cooperate on a new plan. A failure could mean a replay of last winter's slaughter.


"Our appointed and elected officials have been unable and unwilling to even sit down together and talk meaningfully about the conflict, much less reach agreement," says Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "There is no scientific basis for slaughtering these animals based upon any perceived risk of disease - none."


Brucellosis aborts pregnancies in infected animals. State livestock officials say bison can transmit the disease to cattle, although no one has documented such a case in the wild. But a handful of states, fearing the risk to their livestock, say they may refuse to import cattle from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the three states bordering the park.


As a result, both state and federal officials have strongly opposed allowing bison to leave the park during the winter in search of food. This, and warnings from federal animal health inspectors that they would quarantine Montana cattle if bison were left to roam, led to the "zero tolerance policy" that prompted last winter's killing.


The forthcoming EIS will include plans to avoid future massacres. Probably the most popular idea involves quarantining the animals that leave the park, then sending any disease-free bison to Indian reservations across the country. In May, the National Wildlife Federation presented 40,000 individually signed petitions addressed to Montana Gov. Marc Racicot and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman supporting such a plan, which is the brainchild of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (see story below).


Racicot gained legislative approval this year to build a state quarantine facility. Montana officials are now ready to act on their own if federal officials refuse to cooperate, said Pat Graham, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.


"The issue is no longer how to kill them," he said, "but how to keep some of them alive."


Conservationists believe tolerance for bison outside park boundaries will come when people realize that bison pose no real threat to cattle. They hope a National Academy of Sciences study - to be conducted this summer under a directive by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - will support their contention.


"We are thrilled the NAS is doing this," said Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle. "We need the guiding hand of science brought into the debate. We do not believe that some of the claims made about disease can be supported by fact."


Other studies are also under way. In Idaho and at Montana State University in Bozeman, researchers are examining the nature of the brucellosis infection and the possibility of a safe, effective vaccine. Such a vaccine, however, is at least five years away.


Perhaps the only good news is that the number of winter-killed bison is not as high as some biologists had forecast. According to veteran biologist Mary Meagher, about 1,100 bison have been counted in aerial surveys. Still, experts say it could take a decade or more before the bison rebuild their numbers to the 3,400 animals alive in late 1996.


If the livestock industry has its way, that will never happen. At recent congressional hearings in Washington, Western lawmakers heard from a battery of park critics who say that both bison and elk numbers should be tightly controlled.


* Todd Wilkinson





The writer works out of Bozeman, Montana. Mark Matthews contributed to this report.