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 entrance.
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 its fury.
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 century.
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 raises starkly.
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.
Hundreds more 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 predict.
"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 animals;
* Superintendent Finley and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot blamed each other for the bad publicity; and
* 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 anecdote.
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.
In humans, it is called undulant fever and causes severe pain in the joints.
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.
In 1931, 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 1998.
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 Valley.
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 back.
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 killed.
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.
After enduring 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.
As a 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 year.
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 Forest Service.
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 says.
"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 answering."
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 inviting trouble."
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 hands.
"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.
Yellowstone 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.
Says McEneany: "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."
But Racicot 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."
Critics of Montana say its Department of Livestock has subjected bison to excessive cruelty in transport, something Racicot has vowed to correct.
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 ..."
Is 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 this one."
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 setting.
"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."
APHIS 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 written down."
Some APHIS staffers and state veterinarian Siroky, who, ironically, has contracted undulant fever, say that infected bison pose a public health risk.
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.
Wildlife 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
If the 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 activity.
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 parks.
Such proposals make conservationists cringe.
"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 Studies.
"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 killing
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 wars.
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 existence.
"I'm firmly 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 bison.
"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."
Todd Wilkinson, a regular contributor to High Country News, lives in Bozeman, Montana.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
For 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.