Where tourists visiting Yellowstone National Park see a wildlife haven for free-roaming buffalo, a cadre of federal and state scientists see a reservoir of disease that threatens to spill into the outside world.
Park is a cloud hanging over us," says Dick Rath, a veterinarian
from Bozeman, Mont.
Rath and his colleagues,
including state veterinarians and the federal Animal and Plant
Health Inspection Service (APHIS), want to inspect Yellowstone
bison herds they say could spread brucellosis, the disease that
causes livestock to abort their fetuses. They are backed by Montana
Sen. Conrad Burns, R, who has introduced a bill that would require
the Park Service to kill disease-carrying bison in
APHIS and the state veterinarians
have set l998 as the target year for completely eradicating
brucellosis, a virus the federal agency has been battling since
l954, when European cattle introduced the disease. That's
ambitious, but reachable, according to Clarence Siroky, Montana
state veterinarian. "You've got to decide that you're going to
solve the problem and go in there and do that," he
Environmentalists and park advocates are
not so optimistic. "It's time that they step back and revisit that
l998 goal," says Tory Taylor of the Jackson Hole Alliance For
Responsible Planning. "We're all working toward it, but this idea
that we can totally eradicate brucellosis is a pipe dream."
Park Service spokesman Stuart Coleman says the
virus is widespread and shows up in elk, moose and a few grizzly
bears. "It's in the ecosystem," he says. "It's ridiculous to
address bison and not elk." He's resentful of the way the
scientists have bullied the issue. "Clarence Siroky singlehandedly
pushed a rock off a cliff with this brucellosis issue," says
Coleman. "He's set this whole process back several years."
To Siroky, the notion that elk could carry
brucellosis is nonsense: "Somebody has yet to prove if the other
animals are a problem," he says. But there are no known cases of
bison transferring the disease to domestic cattle, either,
according to the National Park Service.
are caught in the middle. They recognize that APHIS holds
tremendous power in its ability to give states a "brucellosis-free"
designation. Ranchers in states with this status, such as Montana
and Wyoming, can export their cattle and avoid an expensive battery
of tests and possible slaughter of infected cattle. However, on
recommendation from the state veterinarians, those two states could
lose their APHIS designation.
"That would be
unacceptable," says Mary Mead, an area rancher. Mead says ranchers
regularly vaccinate their cattle with Strain-l9, a weakened form of
the virus that protects cattle from average exposure to the
disease. And ranchers already cooperate with the Park Service to
keep their cattle away from the roving bison herds. "We've never
had problems with brucellosis," says Mead. "It would be nice to
have brucellosis-free wildlife but I think that's unrealistic."
The issue has taken on added fervor with Burns'
bill, which would require testing of every bison in the park, and
the neutering or destruction of every animal that tested positive
for the virus. The rest would be quarantined for further testing.
"The National Park Service has let this problem get out of
control," says Dick Wathams of Burns' staff. "Nothing seemed to be
The Burns bill has drawn
opposition. "It's a sledgehammer solution," says Stuart Coleman.
"The bison deserve a little better than that. This is a simplified,
After a meeting with Wyoming
conservationists, Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer asked Burns'
co-sponsor, Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas, R, to hold off on the bill
until a solution can be reached through a cooperative interagency
Pam Lichtman of the Jackson Hole
Alliance fears that Burns and APHIS might be shooting themselves in
the foot, making life more difficult for the people they propose to
help. "They're doing it for the ranchers and I think they're only
going to piss them off."
* Shea Andersen, HCN