Toxic bison

  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.

Conservation 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.

The petty 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.

Yet 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 ( He lives in Whitefish, Montana.
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