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.
that state and Park Service officials can cooperate on a new plan.
A failure could mean a replay of last winter's
"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.
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
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
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.
The writer works out
of Bozeman, Montana. Mark Matthews contributed to this