Conservationists, animal rights groups and Park Service officials have long been wary of the federal agency that has ordered the slaughter of Yellowstone bison. Recently, they have uncovered evidence that gives some credence to their fears.
Internal documents obtained by High
Country News suggest that APHIS broke scientific protocol by
introducing a live, experimental brucellosis vaccine into bison
herds at national parks and a national wildlife refuge without the
knowledge or consent of the National Park Service or U.S. Fish and
"I believe this proves that
APHIS is a rogue agency out of control," says D.J. Schubert, a
biologist with the Fund for Animals in Silver Spring,
After the action was exposed, APHIS admitted
that in 1996 it instructed veterinarians in Wind Cave and Badlands
national parks in South Dakota and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife
Refuge in Nebraska to inject the unapproved vaccine, RB51, into
bison without notifying park staff.
Not only did
APHIS introduce the vaccine to buffalo in those preserves but it
also intended to continue the experiment at the National Bison
Range in Montana. Development of an effective vaccine goes to the
heart of APHIS's strategy to eventually eradicate the
To date, ranchers in the Yellowstone
region have used a vaccine known as Strain 19 with good results in
cattle; however, it is not 100 percent effective. While APHIS has
touted its new vaccine, RB51, as a more reliable replacement with
applications to wildlife, the product has not gained approval for
use in bison or elk.
By forging ahead with RB51,
APHIS was not only behaving unethically, says the Fund for Animals'
Schubert, it was releasing an exotic bacteria into an environment
with "absolutely no clue what it is going to do."
Schubert says APHIS had ample opportunity to
state its intentions at an Aug. 22 meeting of the Greater
Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee, but agency officials
failed to mention them to two other federal agencies present, the
Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife
The incident shocked federal wildlife
officials. APHIS representatives had said they would not introduce
brucellosis vaccines into the bison of the Yellowstone region until
a "safe and efficacious' product had been
Two regional directors of the National
Park Service were so upset they wrote an angry letter to Terry
Medley, the head of APHIS in Washington: "We would like to continue
working with APHIS on the very important issue of brucellosis
management but cannot continue to work with Dr. (Mike) Gilsdorf.
Dr. Gilsdorf's actions ... are at least professionally and
"It was a matter of
miscommunication, that's what I believe," APHIS veterinarian
Gilsdorf said in a telephone interview. "We thought everyone was
notified, but we were wrong. We had the protocol reviewed by a
peer-review group. I know some people have criticized the protocol
as being poor and I would agree, it was. All we were trying to do
was gather more data based on how safe it was. We already used it
in cattle calves and that work showed it was safe."
Writing in defense of APHIS, Montana Department
of Livestock Executive Officer Larry Petersen downplayed the
incidents and accused the U.S. Department of Interior of using live
vaccines in wolves, ferrets and other species without protecting
against exposure to other animals.
responds: "I'm not suggesting that the National Park Service and
Fish and Wildlife Service have never made mistakes with their
vaccines. But APHIS made a significant blunder, and the state of
Montana is trying to cover up for them. The irony is that for an
agency so worried about the spread of brucellosis, they seem
awfully sloppy and surprisingly flexible with a potentially harmful