YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Mont. - Like millions of other Americans tuned to the nightly news, rancher Delas Munns has watched in disgust as the death toll of Yellowstone bison climbs.
The images of bloody gut piles and docile
behemoths corralled and shipped to slaughterhouses like cattle do
not make him happy.
Munns and his five brothers
have trucked their livestock from Rexburg, Idaho, to a grazing
allotment on Montana's Gallatin National Forest for 36 years. The
place where they turn their cows loose every summer is called Horse
Butte, and it is just a few miles north of Yellowstone's west
Because the killing of bison is being
carried out ostensibly on his herd's behalf, Munns wants it known
that he holds no personal grudge against bison.
"I feel like a ping-pong ball
being swatted back and forth," he says in a throaty Western brogue
during a recent January snowstorm. "So many different federal and
state bureaucrats are trying to decide what should be done with
those park bison (that) it's become a pretty ugly, aggravating
situation as far as I'm concerned. I'm tired of it."
Though Munns and the handful of other ranchers
who graze cattle near Yellowstone wish the fight over bison
management would go away, it won't. Over the past decade the storm
has built like summer thunderheads, and now it has begun to unleash
In the eye of the storm sits an
obscure federal agency - the Animal and Plant Health Inspection
Service (APHIS). Over the past few months, the agency's efforts to
stem the flow of hungry animals leaving the park have resulted in
the largest slaughter of wild American bison this
That slaughter has dramatized a
fundamental conflict over the management of wildlife in and around
Yellowstone National Park: Should the park be a sort of zoo, in
which bison, grizzlies and other animals are confined? Or is the
park just one part of a larger ecosystem, with the animals free to
move onto neighboring national forest and private land? It's a
question no one wants to confront, but that the bison slaughter
There is a bitter irony behind
the killing of the park's "buffalo," as they are more commonly
called. Many carry a disease, brucellosis, which their ancestors
originally caught from cattle 100 years ago. Now, federal
inspectors say, bison can pass the disease to cattle. That's why
APHIS and the state of Montana have instituted a "zero tolerance"
policy for the hundreds of bison leaving the park for the
grasslands of Montana.
By early February, some
836 of the park's estimated 3,300 bison had either been shot or
sent to slaughterhouses in the middle of the Yellowstone region's
most brutal winter in decades. Half of those killed were bulls,
immature cows and calves which posed virtually no threat to cattle,
due to the nature of the disease.
had gathered along the park's northern and western borders, perhaps
preparing for an exodus. The combination of record human-caused
mortality, and an expected high winter kill from a snowpack as
solid as concrete, could wipe out at least half of Yellowstone's
famous free-ranging bison herd, park officials
"When people describe
what's happening here as "a national tragedy," I don't disagree
with them," says Yellowstone Park Superintendent Mike Finley. "The
National Park Service is very uncomfortable with the position it
finds itself in. We are participating in something that is totally
unpalatable to the American people, and it's something we are not
convinced that science justifies."
The fury of
the brucellosis storm has played out almost daily this winter. Over
the past weeks:
* Conservationists sought a
court injunction to bar the Park Service from destroying the
* Superintendent Finley and Montana
Gov. Marc Racicot blamed each other for the bad publicity;
* Forty Native American tribes affiliated
with the Intertribal Bison Cooperative in Rapid City, S.D., offered
to take the bison - live - back to reservations.
The battle has even reached the White House, where President Bill
Clinton was asked to intervene by both Racicot and the nonprofit
National Parks and Conservation Association. Clinton brought up
bison at a White House meeting of environmental policy advisors as
two of his cabinet members - Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman - tried to broker a cease-fire
that was roundly criticized.
In response to
Montana's unwillingness to allow park bison more breathing room in
the state, the animal rights group, Fund for Animals, took out a
full-page ad in USA Today urging tourists to boycott Montana. "The
state of Montana has zero tolerance for buffalo, so we need you to
have zero tolerance for Montana," the ad said.
Although Gov. Racicot angrily accused the Fund of "false
advertising," the organization's spokesman and lead biologist D.J.
Schubert said he has no plans to back off. Schubert said that the
Fund is contemplating a consumer boycott of beef to force the
livestock industry to reconsider its position on a disease that may
not be as threatening to cattle as it appears.
Jeanne-Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a
conservation group based in Bozeman, Mont., doesn't blame ranchers
for the bison slaughter. She says they are pawns caught between
APHIS and the public-land agencies.
"It's about ... what has a
higher priority on public lands in the West," Souvigney says,
"cattle or wildlife?"
Despite the strong
feelings, nothing appears to be black and white. Hard science on
transmission of brucellosis by buffalo to cattle is scant. Claims
from both sides of the debate are hedged by guesswork and
But one thing is clear: The winter of
1997 will go down as not only a year of record bison carnage, but
as a time when Americans were forced to grapple with their
ambivalent feelings over the management of two species - one
native, one not - that symbolize the West.
The brucellosis threat
Brucellosis, or Bang's disease, can cause pregnant cattle, bison
and elk to abort their fetuses, potentially costing the livestock
industry millions of dollars in lost beef production. The organism,
brucella abortus, is passed on through the body fluids of an
infected host. Scientists say the primary way cattle can get the
disease from bison is by licking the afterbirth of a bison cow.
Bull bison do not copulate with domestic cows and have only a one
in 10,000,000 chance of passing on the disease, according to
Montana state veterinarian Clarence Siroky.
humans, it is called undulant fever and causes severe pain in the
Most cases nowadays come from drinking
the unpasteurized milk of contaminated cows. Although brucellosis
is a common malady in the Third World, the U.S. Centers For Disease
Control no longer charts the number of cases in this country
because there are so few.
Because of a perceived
threat to livestock, however, APHIS has treated the presence of
brucellosis in Yellowstone's wildlife as vigilantly as if it were
Ebola on the verge of leaving Zaire.
when Congress handed APHIS the daunting task of eradicating
brucellosis from domestic livestock herds, the disease was
pandemic. APHIS, which already served ranchers by killing predators
through its Animal Damage Control office, accepted its charge with
almost messianic devotion.
Some $3 billion has
been spent nationally over the last 60 years trying to make America
brucellosis-free, and with the exception of a couple dozen trouble
spots that remain, APHIS hopes to complete its mission by
To some in the livestock industry,
Yellowstone represents a nagging, lingering cesspool of the
disease. In the early days, however, disease-carrying bison were
never a real threat. During the 1940s and 1950s, the Park Service
managed them much like cattle, turning them loose in the summer,
then rounding them up and feeding them hay in the winter.
When numbers grew too high, some were killed
and processed in the the park's slaughterhouse in the Lamar
Everything changed in 1967, when park
officials began to allow the elements to regulate herd numbers.
Bison numbers expanded rapidly; the levels identified as a
year-round carrying capacity for the park doubled. Buffalo also
began migrating outside the park during winter months to search for
grasses at lower elevations. In the springtime, the animals moved
But in 1985, APHIS declared Montana and
Wyoming cattle "brucellosis-free." To protect the herds, the
federal agency ordered Yellowstone officials to keep its buffalo
inside park boundaries. Otherwise, the animals would be shot and
The bison killings that followed
generated perennial bad press. They also met with resistance from
the National Park Service and Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks
Department, which both felt that plenty of good winter range for
bison existed outside the park.
10 years of negative publicity, APHIS and the livestock industry
convinced the Montana legislature to take bison management away
from the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department and hand it over to
the state Department of Livestock. At the same time, Gov. Racicot,
acting on behalf of the industry, successfully sued the Park
Service to control its nomadic animals.
result of the state's victory, Yellowstone Park reluctantly entered
into an interim bison management plan with the state until an
environmental impact statement is completed later this
It is this temporary plan that has created
the headlines. It calls for rangers to trap bison as they leave the
northern border of the park and to ship to slaughter the animals
that test positive for disease. It allows state livestock officials
to take similar measures - including shooting animals on sight -
outside the western and northern boundaries on land managed by the
Montana livestock department
chief Larry Petersen and state veterinarian Clarence Siroky say the
state beef industry is under intense pressure from APHIS to
eliminate potential contact between bison and cattle or have its
"disease-free" status revoked.
Losing it means
that Montana's 2.75 million beef and dairy cows would be subject to
expensive quarantine and testing before leaving the state, Petersen
"They (the Park Service)
say they are getting a black eye over this. I can tell you that we
are, too," Petersen said. "It all depends upon whose phone you're
Projections by agricultural
economists show that a brucellosis comeback could cost the beef
industry $800 million nationwide in lost production, according to
APHIS veterinarian Mike Gilsdorf. There are also international
trade considerations, he says. If the United States achieves
brucellosis-free status, new markets will open up. The country
could also stop beef imports from nations where the disease is
present, he says.
"We have our
own mandates just like the park has theirs, and ours is to
eliminate brucellosis," says Gilsdorf. "If we drop our guard and
let the diseased bison roam freely out in the countryside, we're
Talk of preventing economic
hardships for ranchers provides no solace to Park Superintendent
Finley. Known for taking on politicians and private interests that
threaten park resources (HCN, 4/29/96), he calls this episode the
toughest of his career.
His face ashen as he
reads through a stack of 600 angry letters from citizens and park
employees one day in his office, he says he knows some see him as a
bureaucrat with blood on his
"We are carrying out
the second persecution of bison in this country," Finley says, "the
first being the massacre of the 19th century that almost
annihilated the species. A lot of people around the country are
rightfully questioning why we are doing this. They feel that the
Park Service has lost its way."
In defense of
the superintendent, one colleague says that Finley knew the interim
management plan was deeply flawed and stood poised to reject the
Justice Department settlement in defiance of Montana. The source
says Park Service Director Roger Kennedy ordered Finley to comply
out of an attempt to salvage a spirit of intergovernmental
cooperation. If so, it failed.
ornithologist Terry McEneany echoed the anger of many park rangers
in a letter to Racicot, who is one of the most popular Montana
political figures in history.
"I'd like to look at his approval ratings in a couple of months
when he is remembered as the governor who needlessly led
Yellowstone's bison to slaughter."
says the onus for the slaughter lies with the park, even though
state employees have carried out much of the killing.
"We have never wanted this
responsibility thrust upon the state of Montana. Our preferred
option is not to harvest bison, but it is virtually the only
alternative we are left with," Racicot says. "For me, it is
terribly anguishing. I think it is preposterous that we are in this
situation. Yellowstone has an obligation to take care of its
wildlife and it has been remiss."
Montana say its Department of Livestock has subjected bison to
excessive cruelty in transport, something Racicot has vowed to
During the rounding up and shipment of
bison to slaughterhouses, several animals have suffered gaping
puncture wounds from horns. Some have had their eyes gouged out, as
the animals around them panicked.
"The state under Marc
Racicot's leadership has treated these wild, majestic creatures
like they are cattle," says Schubert of the Fund for Animals.
"These animals are the descendants of 23 survivors from a
biological holocaust. They are sacred to Native Americans and
beloved by children worldwide, but the state of Montana is willing
to sacrifice national treasures to the misguided passions of the
livestock industry ..."
the threat real?
Last summer, after seven
Yellowstone buffalo were seen foraging in Delas Munns' grazing
allotment, veterinarians from both Montana and Idaho required
testing of his herds on three occasions - each time with negative
results. Munns says he has vaccinated his cows for years and never
has had an animal test positive.
The risk of
possible infection for cattle remains highly debatable. Critics of
the shoot-and-slaughter approach say there is more mythology and
cultural fear relating to brucellosis and bison than there was
surrounding wolves before they were returned to the park. John
Varley, who heads Yellowstone's science office, told U.S. News
& World Report that "they (ranchers and politicians) did not
like us winning the wolf issue and they are determined not to lose
In all the discussion of disease,
one fact stands out: Not a single case has been documented of bison
spreading brucellosis to cattle in a natural
"The Park Service and
environmentalists tell you how unlikely it is for bison to pass the
disease to cattle, which is kind of a big step in logic since
wildlife got it from cattle in the first place," says Stuart
McDonald, a regional spokesman for APHIS based in Englewood, Colo.
"It's easier to be philosophical about the disease if you're not
the one suffering the problem."
spokespeople cite a study in which scientists from Texas A&M;
University put cattle and infected bison together in a small
corral; eventually cattle tested positive for the disease. Gilsdorf
points to another case, this one in North Dakota, where bison were
suspected of passing brucellosis on to cattle. But when he is asked
for verification, he says, "We have several examples to prove it
can happen but the problem is most of those cases were never
Some APHIS staffers and state
veterinarian Siroky, who, ironically, has contracted undulant
fever, say that infected bison pose a public health
Park Superintendent Finley responds
flatly: "We've had more than 100 million visitors pass through the
park in close proximity to bison, and there has not been a single
reported case of a tourist coming down with the disease. Federal
employees work and live with bison immediately adjacent to their
homes and schools. Siroky is still pumping out scare tactics about
the supposed danger to human health."
Challenging Siroky to prove his assertions is Yellowstone Park
biologist Mary Meagher, an authority on bison. She says half of
Yellowstone's bison have tested positive for the disease, but only
a small percentage develop active symptoms.
That means if bison have been exposed to the disease and developed
antibodies, they will test positive for the disease. Meagher says
those bison are the ones that should be spared and studied for
development of an efficient vaccine. Unfortunately, many are now
hanging in meat lockers, she says.
biologists say brucellosis is found in many species, from bears,
wolves and coyotes to scavengers such as rodents and crows. Even if
extreme measures depopulated Yellowstone of its bison and elk
herds, they say complete eradication is unlikely. A less costly
strategy is to develop a plan built upon risk assessment - a move
APHIS has been reluctant to make.
Conservationists find it odd that Montana has complained little
about the park's free-ranging elk. The animals carry brucellosis in
far greater numbers than buffalo and statistically represent a
greater risk to cattle.
The only recent cases of
undulant fever found in humans around Yellowstone have occurred
among hunters gutting and cleaning their elk near the park's
northern border. But, perhaps because Montana generates millions of
dollars annually selling elk hunting licenses and related services,
that threat has been overlooked.
Drawing the line
brucellosis debate has drawn lines between agencies and
politicians, it has also separated those who feel wildlife have an
inherent right to roam, and those who believe wild animals should
be confined to places where they do not pose a threat to economic
Gov. Racicot and his advisors have
repeatedly told the Park Service to keep "its' bison inside the
park and have even proposed erecting a fence along the park's
northern boundary. They have also called for a reduction in the
size of the Yellowstone herd and a test-and-slaughter program for
every bison in the park. Racicot notes that eradication of disease
through such a program has been successful in South Dakota
Such proposals make conservationists
"It raises the
fundamental question: Is Yellowstone a sanctuary for wildlife or
are we going to allow the livestock industry to turn it into a
livestock yard and zoo?" asks Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone
Coalition, a plaintiff along with five other conservation groups in
a lawsuit charging that Yellowstone is violating its Organic Act
and other laws.
Souvigney says Montana also
ignores 50-year-old laws requiring that habitat for buffalo be
established outside the park. Some 2,000 cattle now graze close to
the park, she notes, on a half-dozen public-land allotments and
interspersed private land.
Jim Halfpenny, an
ecologist who lives in Gardiner, Mont., says the problem isn't
overpopulation; it is trying to make summer populations of animals
survive in a winter environment that cannot support them.
"The bison just want to go
home, metaphorically speaking," explains biologist Robert Crabtree,
executive director of the nonprofit Yellowstone Ecosystem
"They evolved on the
Great Plains. You can't stop bison or elk or bears from wanting to
colonize habitat they evolved to prefer. Yellowstone is a wildlife
refuge, yes, but let's face it, much of the best winter habitat is
found outside the park on Forest Service and private land."
Ways to stop the
As Yellowstone's long winter lingers,
possible solutions to prevent a repeat of this year's bison
slaughter have popped up like geysers in the park's geothermal
basin. Natural-resource legal experts Robert Keiter and Peter
Froelicher say APHIS should redesignate the Yellowstone region as a
special "brucellosis-infected area," which would enable state
livestock officials to be more flexible locally without
jeopardizing the entire state's brucellosis-free status. Under this
scenario, Yellowstone-area ranchers would have to alter their
patterns of use to accommodate buffalo and would be required to
vaccinate all their cattle.
In a move in that
direction, the head of APHIS said in a Feb. 7 letter to Racicot
that his agency would, as a contingency, allow limited migration of
bison onto Forest Service lands outside the park without it
jeopardizing the state's brucellosis-free status. APHIS director
Terry Medley also said that "shooting need not be the technique of
first choice." Conservationists said it was a positive step, but
noted that it does not bring any resolution to Yellowstone's bison
APHIS, meanwhile, is trying to formalize
its authority over bison. The agency filed a notice in the Federal
Register on Jan. 10, proposing to have its charter expanded from
eliminating disease in cattle to including cattle and bison. One
prominent rancher, who asked not to be identified, suggested that
APHIS is looking to justify its
convinced they are doing exactly what the Army Corps of Engineers
did after they discovered the nation wasn't going to build any more
dams," the rancher said. "They (the Army Corps) latched on to
wetlands. APHIS is trying to do the same thing by hitching their
wagon to brucellosis in bison herds."
"Some would say that APHIS
has completed its mission with livestock and should now just go
away," echoes Franz Camenzind with the Jackson Hole Alliance for
Responsible Planning. "I would tend to agree."
Whether or not APHIS manages to hold onto its power in the long
run, the ongoing slaughter seems to beg for an immediate solution
from the highest levels of government. Ed Francis, an officer of
The Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious group which owns
the 12,000-acre Royal Teton Ranch across the park's northern
border, says he was contacted recently by the White House's Office
on Environmental Policy. The office, which is closely associated
with Vice President Al Gore, wanted to talk about possibilities for
making church land available to wandering
"So far, nobody has
come forward with a real offer. Everything has been vague and
ambiguous," Francis reports.
But Francis notes
that the authority of the presidency was essential to resolving the
controversy over the New World Mine. "If somebody from the White
House wants to come out here and talk about the problem, we're
willing to listen."
more information, call Yellowstone National Park, public affairs,
307/344-2013; Montana Department of Livestock, 406/444-2023; or the
Greater Yellowstone Coalition, 406/586-1593.
Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to High Country News, lives
in Bozeman, Montana.