On the day after Christmas, bison migrating downhill from Yellowstone National Park's northern range once again met gunfire in Montana.


Caught in a power struggle between the National Park Service, whose policy of "natural regulation" has allowed their numbers to grow to an estimated 4,300, and the livestock industry, which is worried about disease, more than 100 buffalo were killed by Jan. 5.


On Jan. 4, the arrival of an NBC film crew caused wildlife officials to haze about 100 bison back into the park instead of shooting them. Yellowstone's chief ranger Dan Sholly told the Billings Gazette, "death is a hard sell." But the next day, 41 bison were shot to death.


Montana officials are concerned about brucellosis, a disease carried by the bison which can cause domestic cattle to abort their calves. Although there has never been a documented case of the disease passing from buffalo to cattle on the open range, livestock officials in the surrounding states are taking no chances (HCN, 12/26/94).


Nebraska, North Dakota and Washington state recently decided to require brucellosis testing for all Montana cattle entering their borders. And the U.S. Department of Agriculture is threatening to revoke the state's disease-free rating. If that happens, Montana cattlemen would have to test their animals before shipping them anywhere in the nation, at a cost, livestock officials here say, of as much as $10 million a year.


A brucellosis vaccine that can be administered in feed pellets, now being tested on elk in North Dakota, might someday solve the disease problem in Yellowstone bison. But in the meantime Montana Gov. Marc Racicot says his state will sue the federal government over the conflicting policies that got it into this pickle.


Plans for a better bison strategy are now making their way through the federal process of environmental impact analysis. According to the draft of an interagency management plan that was recently leaked to the Associated Press, federal and state officials are thinking of setting up areas near the park's borders where exiting bison would be rounded up and tested for brucellosis. Infected animals would be slaughtered; healthy ones either returned to the park, killed, sold or given away. This proposal, the authors said, could reduce the herd by as much as 2,000.


The recent killings have all taken place on a ranch owned by the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT). Spokesman Murray Steinman complains that the church is spending about $10,000 a year replacing fences destroyed by bison.


Recently, the park invited Blackfeet Indians to take the meat of bison killed on CUT land. Blackfeet leader George Kipp told AP he thinks that Native Americans should be allowed to hunt bison inside the park. "The buffalo are in pretty pitiful shape," he said. "It's only the last 100 years it all got screwed up."


Other tribal members, while happy to get the meat, are concerned that the bison are not being killed with the proper respect. They would rather have the animals alive. The Inter-tribal Bison Cooperative, a group of 34 tribes, has proposed taking surplus disease-free bison from Yellowstone for reservation herds. But that suggestion will have to wait until the new management plan is ready for public comment. Meanwhile, the piles of bison guts are increasing around Yellowstone.


* Lynne Bama





Lynne Bama reports from Wapiti, Wyoming.