Updated March 11, 2008
With bison populations in
Yellowstone National Park estimated at a near-record 4,700 animals
this snowy winter, buffalo have begun pushing out of the park in
earnest, and the usual winter shout-fest is underway. Fine, but the
real problem posed by Yellowstone’s brucellosis infection,
and the park’s refusal to realistically deal with it,
isn’t bison. It’s elk.
In 1951, the states
and livestock producers joined with the federal government’s
Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) to eradicate
brucellosis. In 1957, over 124,000 livestock herds were still known
to be infected. By the end of 2001, the cooperative effort had paid
off, and APHIS reported that “the number of known
brucellosis-infected cattle and bison herds in the United States
has been reduced to one …”
Canada has been
brucellosis-free since 1985, and stopped testing in 1999. In early
February of this year, Texas became the last state to share
“Class Free” status with the rest of the nation. You
might say after 56 years that the war against brucellosis was over
-- except for that one holdout herd the government’s
inspection service noted in 2001. What herd is that?
Yellowstone’s bison, currently about 50 percent infected,
according to APHIS. Brucellosis persists in Yellowstone mainly
because of the Park Service’s “natural
management” policy, which is ironic since brucellosis is not
a disease native to America, but to the eastern Mediterranean.
Bison aside, however, between 1 and 9 percent of elk in
Yellowstone are also infected with brucellosis, with the Firehole
herd being the most toxic. Does that matter? Yes, because in the
Montana, Wyoming, Idaho and Yellowstone region, none of the cattle
herds that were infected since 2001 with brucellosis, and then
slaughtered, were known to have any contact with bison. But they
had plenty of contact with infected elk.
biologists have waxed rhapsodic about the cascade of changes
triggered by wolf reintroduction -- changes not only in vegetation,
but also in elk density and feeding habits. Elk are much more
vulnerable to wolves than bison. Some are killed by wolves, of
course, which upsets many sportsmen. How the survivors have
responded to wolves sniffing at their heels and the high numbers of
bison competing for browse is probably far more important.
Many Yellowstone elk have simply left the park. The
question is: How many of these elk are infected, and where are they
now? Nobody seems to know. To their credit, the states of Wyoming
and Idaho have grasped the seriousness of the risk and are
addressing regional elk infections. They test and cull infected
animals at their state-run feed grounds, plus hunters take blood
samples of their kills for testing.
Much is at stake, and
not just for livestock producers and hunters, but all citizens. Elk
today mix routinely with livestock everywhere in the West.
Elk-induced infection and destruction of cattle herds could end all
that in a heartbeat. Ranchers will not tolerate elk any more if
doing so means risking herd slaughter. Once that happens, hunters
are out of luck. Ranchers busted by a slaughter order will be
driven to subdivide or sell to trophy-ranch buyers, few of whom are
interested in allowing “regular-guy” hunters on their
ground. The damage to our shared economy would be vast, and
permanent. Major chunks of our common agricultural and sporting
heritage would be lost forever, by everyone.
bureaucratic intransigence of the National Park Service’s
leadership and staff, combined with histrionics from “bison
activists,” has left the grownups with one heck of a mess.
Yellowstone’s high bison infection rate in bison has spilled
over into much-more-mobile elk populations, which routinely travel
far from Yellowstone Park. That in turn means that final
eradication of this terrible, exotic disease will cost far more and
take much longer to accomplish than it should have.
it must be done. It’s time for us all, especially our elected
leaders, to act like adults. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, Idaho
Gov. Butch Otter, and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer need to crank
up the heat on the Park Service to get its toxic house in order,
and keep the pot boiling until brucellosis is whipped.
Dave Skinner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a
service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Whitefish,