Bison sleek, but suspect

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Bison sleek, but suspect

West Yellowstone, Mont. - It's been an easy winter for Yellowstone National Park's bison. Only 11 of the shaggy giants have been killed, a fraction of the nearly 1,100 that were shot or shipped to slaughter in the brutal winter of 1996-97.

Protruding ribs and jutting hip bones were bison hallmarks at this time last year. This spring the bison are sleek and fat.

Yet once the animals leave Yellowstone, their status remains uncertain, because some fear they could spread brucellosis to domestic cattle. Fighting the disease throughout the country has taken many decades and billions of dollars, and in the process, a sizable bureaucracy has been built, along with complex rules and regulations.

Most states are now "brucellosis class free," and Montana's chief veterinarian, Arnold Gertonson, wants to keep it that way. Gertonson recently wrote to the 49 other state vets, urging them to reject a new federal proposal of tolerance for "low-risk" bison that leave the park, such as bulls, non-pregnant females and calves. The proposal by the agency, the federal Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), is a significant departure from its previous position, when it threatened to revoke Montana's hard-won brucellosis-free status if the state tolerated any possibly infected animals.

In urging a rejection of the newly relaxed attitude of APHIS, Gertonson said that if bison are allowed to leave the park, this equals a "de facto expansion" of the park's borders.

Mike Clark, director of the nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition, says that as long as Montana insists on the need to kill bison leaving the park, there can be no satisfactory solution to the bison controversy that has divided Montanans for 20 years.

When APHIS softened its position, Clark added, "it found a way to loosen the noose around Yellowstone's bison. By rejecting APHIS" proposal, Montana is tightening the noose back up."

*Scott McMillion

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