Will the bison killing resume next winter?

 

With half of Yellowstone's bison now hanging in meat lockers or filling the bellies of grizzly bears, the spring of 1997 was supposed to end the "buffalo war" outside America's oldest national park. But though the guns are silent following the largest slaughter of wild bison in the 20th century, a bitter debate continues.

The latest focus is an effort by Montana officials, the Park Service, and the federal Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to finish by July an environmental impact statement on how to manage bison that leave the park.

The EIS will replace an interim plan that allowed Montana's Department of Livestock to kill nearly 1,100 animals this winter, including hundreds that conservationists and park officials say posed little or no brucellosis threat to cattle (HCN, 2/17/97). Although some scientists believe half of Yellowstone's bison carry the disease, only a small fraction of carriers become infected.

Conservationists doubt that state and Park Service officials can cooperate on a new plan. A failure could mean a replay of last winter's slaughter.

"Our appointed and elected officials have been unable and unwilling to even sit down together and talk meaningfully about the conflict, much less reach agreement," says Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. "There is no scientific basis for slaughtering these animals based upon any perceived risk of disease - none."

Brucellosis aborts pregnancies in infected animals. State livestock officials say bison can transmit the disease to cattle, although no one has documented such a case in the wild. But a handful of states, fearing the risk to their livestock, say they may refuse to import cattle from Montana, Wyoming and Idaho, the three states bordering the park.

As a result, both state and federal officials have strongly opposed allowing bison to leave the park during the winter in search of food. This, and warnings from federal animal health inspectors that they would quarantine Montana cattle if bison were left to roam, led to the "zero tolerance policy" that prompted last winter's killing.

The forthcoming EIS will include plans to avoid future massacres. Probably the most popular idea involves quarantining the animals that leave the park, then sending any disease-free bison to Indian reservations across the country. In May, the National Wildlife Federation presented 40,000 individually signed petitions addressed to Montana Gov. Marc Racicot and Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman supporting such a plan, which is the brainchild of the InterTribal Bison Cooperative (see story below).

Racicot gained legislative approval this year to build a state quarantine facility. Montana officials are now ready to act on their own if federal officials refuse to cooperate, said Pat Graham, director of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"The issue is no longer how to kill them," he said, "but how to keep some of them alive."

Conservationists believe tolerance for bison outside park boundaries will come when people realize that bison pose no real threat to cattle. They hope a National Academy of Sciences study - to be conducted this summer under a directive by Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt - will support their contention.

"We are thrilled the NAS is doing this," said Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle. "We need the guiding hand of science brought into the debate. We do not believe that some of the claims made about disease can be supported by fact."

Other studies are also under way. In Idaho and at Montana State University in Bozeman, researchers are examining the nature of the brucellosis infection and the possibility of a safe, effective vaccine. Such a vaccine, however, is at least five years away.

Perhaps the only good news is that the number of winter-killed bison is not as high as some biologists had forecast. According to veteran biologist Mary Meagher, about 1,100 bison have been counted in aerial surveys. Still, experts say it could take a decade or more before the bison rebuild their numbers to the 3,400 animals alive in late 1996.

If the livestock industry has its way, that will never happen. At recent congressional hearings in Washington, Western lawmakers heard from a battery of park critics who say that both bison and elk numbers should be tightly controlled.

The writer works out of Bozeman, Montana. Mark Matthews contributed to this report.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - TWISPWORKS
    Established healthy nonprofit in the Methow Valley of Washington state, TwispWorks is hiring the next Executive Director. Terrific opportunity to strive for our mission to...
  • BOARD DIRECTOR
    Help us achieve our mission of promoting excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship, science and education to ensure the life-sustaining benefits of wilderness....
  • TEMPORARY FULL-TIME RANCH OPERATIONS ASSISTANT
    Twin Willows Ranch in Ocate, NM is seeking to immediately fill a Temporary Full-Time employment position as Ranch Operations Assistant for Facilities, Equipment, Land, and...