Yellowstone bison: Hazed and confused

Park's buffalo herd caught in gridlock

  • Buffalo Field Campaign

It was a procession straight out of a children's book: A Montana sheriff's SUV and a federal law enforcement truck driving down U.S. Highway 287 toward Yellowstone National Park, bright lights flashing, followed by five shaggy bison. Make way for buffalo! Behind them were more government trucks, several guys on ATVs and seven horseback riders. Overhead, a helicopter thumped.

They kept it up for miles; the bison ran so hard their tongues hung down.

But not everyone was welcome to join the parade. A sheriff's deputy warned a vanload of journalists to stay clear or be arrested.

"Arrested for what?" asked a ticked-off Los Angeles Times reporter.


"Obstructing what?"

Obstructing the Interagency Bison Management Plan.

This plan was made 10 years ago through negotiations between the National Park Service and other powers, including the Montana Department of Livestock. It's designed to prevent the spread of a bacteria-borne disease, brucellosis, that can cause cattle and bison to abort their calves. And it is a great illustration of Western environmental gridlock.

Ranchers -- always a formidable special interest -- worry that bison might spread brucellosis to cattle. Therefore, Yellowstone is allowed to have no more than 3,000 bison, more or less, and those can't stray. So every spring, when hundreds of them naturally venture out of the park seeking lower-elevation grass and good calving grounds, government agents "haze" them back in. The government also rounds up bison to test them for brucellosis, and slaughters any that test positive. Some years, more than 1,500 are killed.

Conservationists want to stop all this and let the bison wander beyond the park's arbitrary boundaries. That's why the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Buffalo Field Campaign invited journalists on the May field trip that included the hazing on Highway 287. "Bison were the paramount iconic species of the West," Keith Aune, a Wildlife Conservation Society biologist, explained.

Ironically, cattle spread brucellosis to Yellowstone's wildlife in the first place; ranchers eventually culled the infected cows, but even though the government has spent more than $20 million on the bison plan, the disease persists in bison and elk because wildlife diseases are nearly impossible to eradicate in the wild. And the government isn't investing much in developing a better vaccine against brucellosis.

Moreover, there are only 20,500 wild plains bison left in North America, in 62 "conservation herds" run by agencies and conservationists -- a tiny fraction of the 25 million to 60 million that once roamed the Great Plains, Aune said. That decline is masked by the half-million bison raised for meat on private ranches. So some agencies and conservationists are reintroducing wild bison to places like central Montana, even as Yellowstone's bison -- the largest wild herd -- are being slaughtered.

The absurdities don't end there: Cattle in all three states bordering Yellowstone have been infected since the plan was imposed. But the suspected culprits are elk, not bison.

Native Americans, despite their cultural ties to bison, are reluctant to accept Yellowstone's surplus on some reservations because their ranchers also fear brucellosis. But conservation-oriented billionaire Ted Turner has just accepted 87 Yellowstone bison on one of his Montana ranches, on condition that he gets to keep many of their offspring. In response, some conservationists have filed a lawsuit charging that he's privatizing public wildlife.

Other pro-bison forces including the National Wildlife Federation have retired cattle-grazing permits on Horse Butte, a key area next to the park, and some locals say the bison are welcome to hang out in their yards -- ignoring the threat of bodily injury. (Tourists in the park are occasionally trampled and gored.) But the federal plan still orders that bison be hazed off Horse Butte.

Errol Rice, a fifth-generation rancher who's executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, explained his side's thinking: No matter where the line is drawn, sooner or later the bison population will expand to cross it. When cattle are infected, ranchers must slaughter whole herds. "It can bring a ranch family to its knees," Rice said.

The conservationists say the risk is manageable and worth taking. But ranchers want zero risk or full compensation for their losses.

Along Highway 287, the hazing forces eventually gathered about 80 bison and shooed them to the intersection with Highway 191, where they turned right heading for the park. One conservationist used his iPhone to Twitter from the front lines: "I am watching bison being hazed ... Wow!" Clearly, the problem is not yet solved.

cattle have no place in the west
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jun 01, 2010 04:19 PM
They were brought here by rich Europeans
solely to make money. That cause no longer justifies their presence. They ruin the range. They exist at the cost of a healthy natural environment. They cannot survive without intervention. They smother and starve in snow, and drown in mud.
Other than vested interests, there is no inherent or sustainable right to raise cattle in North America.
Hazed and Confused
Renee DeMartin
Renee DeMartin
Jun 01, 2010 05:20 PM
Boy, I could not have said it any better.....cattle (and sheep) really don't belong in the west. I'm so tired of ranchers battling indigenous species and common sense environmental solutions because their domestic brutes rule the range.
There are far too few conservation minded ranchers.
No place?
Jun 01, 2010 05:44 PM
I am not against them being raised on private lands, but public lands ranching done at the detriment to the land and native species certainly needs to end. Especially because it is to the benefit of a very few at the detriment of the many.
Backcountry Beef
Jim Klyap
Jim Klyap
Jun 03, 2010 08:37 AM
The once pristine backcountry where elk and deer once played is grazed down to the dirt. Seeing domestic cattle in these areas turns my stomach. I don't care how old the cattle leases are...this isn't right!
Welfare Ranchers and Their Cows
Jun 01, 2010 11:04 PM
Edward Abbey was "right on"!
“Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of [cows]…. They are a pest and a plague. They pollute our springs and streams and rivers. They infest our canyons, valleys, meadows, and forests. They graze off the native bluestems and grama and bunch grasses, leaving behind jungles of prickly pear. They trample down the native forbs and shrubs and cacti. They spread the exotic cheatgrass, the Russian thistle, and the crested wheat grass. Weeds. Even when the cattle are not physically present, you see the dung and the flies and the mud and the dust and the general destruction. If you don’t see it, you’ll smell it. The whole American West stinks of cattle.”
~ The late Edward Abbey, conservationist and author, in a speech at the University of Montana in 1985
Only 3 percent ...
Jun 03, 2010 01:44 AM
That's how much of the cattle raised in the U.S. spends any time grazing on federal lands. It would probably be cheaper in the long run just to buy out any federal grazing leases and abolish them.
Jun 03, 2010 08:34 AM
Cattle grazing should be largely eliminated from our public lands. I have no interest in telling a rancher what he/she can do on private lands, but this heavily subsidized destruction of our public lands, and the accompanying displacement, and even exclusion, of native wildlife is unacceptable. GET CATTLE OFF OUR PUBLIC LANDS AND RETURN THESE LANDS TO NATIVE PLANTS AND ANIMALS.
trying to make life impossible without corporations
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jun 03, 2010 12:41 PM
The end result of cattle in the west, of oil companies, General Motors, General Mills, Monsanto, pharmaceuticals, and water and electric companies, and of all the pollution and eco-destruction, is to make it impossible to live without them.
They hold us hostage to our needs. It is to our benefit to protect alternatives.
It is not corporations, but the creative and almost infinite abundance of nature that sustains us. A functioning ecosystem is crucial to survival as well as freedom.
and communication is crucial, too
marty weiss
marty weiss
Jun 03, 2010 12:58 PM
The recent moves by AT&T to enforce a rate structure on the internet is another attack on an essential human survival tool. Time and again in our history we have been saved by communication and innovation. Making free access on the 'net subject to affluence screens out the poor and many of the innovative.
Like war, it's a scam. Control traffic and charge a toll. Corner the market.
Just another sleazy move to make themselves indispensable.
Bison Chronicles
Mark York
Mark York
Jun 11, 2010 09:30 PM
I wrote a few stories on this topic for The Livingston Enterprise in 2008. The ranchers have a marginal capacity for profit as it is, and so bison and wolves bear the brunt of their economic fears. I once quipped to current Park County Commission chair, Marty Malone, when he was a candidate for Park County Commissioner, that I wanted to buy a place in Paradise Valley near his and raise Bison just to add to the confusion and that they made more sense than cattle to begin with, heath-wise.

He said, "Get yourself a piece of ground and have at it."

I couldn't of course but the hell of it is the brucellosis is carried and passed on to the local cattle by Elk, when it is. This is a proven fact. But then, that's a matter of wolf predation, which the ranchers are against as well. Reality is a tough slug in the biological world.

Brucellosis plan gets first review
By Mark A. York, Enterprise Staff Writer
Federal officials announced Monday a new master plan for managing brucellosis in livestock — separating the Greater Yellowstone region, where risk of transmission of the disease by wildlife is higher, from the rest of the state.
“The Board of Livestock meeting Monday (in Helena) was the first time a lot of producers have seen the plan,” said Pray rancher Druska Kinkie Tuesday morning. Kinkie attended the Monday meeting at which the tri-state regionalization plan for Montana, Idaho and Wyoming was discussed.
“There’s been a multitude of proposals — four long-term and a short-term plan to help the state get its (brucellosis-free) status back,” she said. “The short-term plan is the Montana Brucellosis Action Plan.
“It’s rigorous and intensive, with a lot of testing of individual producers. Nothing has been decided. It’s still in the draft stage at this point.”
Kinkie said each producer has to have a herd plan that would be heavily scrutinized by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), to prove each herd is disease-free.
“One drawback of this action plan is that it’s incredibly complicated,” she said. “It requires a lot of personnel and money to implement.”
Brucellosis causes abortions, infertility and lowered milk production in cattle and bison, and is transmitted to humans as undulant fever, according to APHIS documents.
That agency has the dual purpose of eradicating brucellosis while maintaining a free-roaming bison herd in Yellowstone National Park, according the APHIS documents.
In recent years, the two goals have collided.
Yellowstone bison have a 50 percent infection rate for the disease, APHIS states in an online document, “Brucellosis and Yellowstone Bison.” The threat occurs when deep snows drive bison out of the park and into contact with local cattle herds. Elk also carry the disease, but are less likely than bison to spread it due to their gregarious behavior, such as congregating together more than bison do during calving time, the most opportune period for transmission of the disease, the agency states in the document.
Livestock brought to the Northern Rockies by early European settlers introduced the brucellosis bacteria to elk and bison, and now those animals in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are considered to be one of the last remaining reservoirs of the disease.
“Risk assessment is a huge part of the plan,” Kinkie said.
Exposure to wildlife varies depending on location.
Kinkie said the two positive cases of brucellosis in Montana cattle were determined to come from elk, which range farther than bison.
The loss of the brucellosis-free status could cost ranchers statewide between $6 to $12 million for cattle shipped out of Montana, it has been reported.
Montana State Veterinarian Martin Zaluski is in charge of formulating the Montana brucellosis plan. The plan could ensure brucellosis-free status, he has said.
“This is scary for ranchers because it can mean the end for ranching in Paradise Valley,” Kinkie said. “The plan is open for public scrutiny and will be based on producer input. State Veterinarian Zaluski is taking public comments.”
Kinkie encouraged written comments from all parties.
“We need all the help we can get from everyone involved,” she said.
Zaluski can be reached at; or Department of Livestock, Animal Health Division, P.O. Box 202001, Helena, MT 59620-2001; or by phone at (406) 444-2043.