2004 ACI Third Place winner: Magazine article–Wildlife
Concerned about both its livestock industry and national image, Montana struggles to manage bison spilling from Yellowstone National Park.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
As if Alan Wasson didn’t have enough to do running a ranch of 350 cows near Whitewater, a few miles south of Montana’s border with Saskatchewan, the lifelong rancher has also been forced to keep a watchful eye on Yellowstone National Park, several hundred miles to the south.
“ If brucellosis shows up in the cattle down there, it will affect
every cattle producer in this state,” he says.
What concerns Wasson and other cattlemen is the growing number of bison spilling from the park. Yellowstone’s population of shaggy ungulates is chronically infected with brucellosis, a disease that causes cows to abort. Montana ranchers maintain that the bison’s spread threatens their industry.
State and federal officials agree that Yellowstone’s burgeoning bison population requires some type of lethal control. Cur-rently several hundred bison leaving the park are killed each year to prevent the animals from mixing with cattle grazing on adjacent U.S. Forest Service lands.
“ Either we control bison numbers or we allow the population to keep growing and expanding to where it creates an even larger problem down the road,” says Keith Aune, head of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) wildlife research program and one of the state’s bison experts.
Many people don’t see it that way, however. Animal rights groups and some federal lawmakers denounce any lethal control of Yellowstone bison. In a recent National Parks magazine editorial, West Virginia congressman Nick J. Rahall II called current bison removal efforts a “hysterical overreaction.”
Adding to the conflict are plans by Mon-tana to resume, as early as this winter, public hunting for some bison leaving the park. In the 1980s, hunters received a public relations black eye when national media de-picted bison hunts as cruel and unsporting.
Like the gray wolf and grizzly bear, the bison (commonly called buffalo) looms large in the public’s imagination. The con-tinent’s largest land mammal, it once roamed across much of North America, from Florida north to the Alleghenies and west to the Rockies. The great herds fed predators and scavengers and provided sustenance and material for Indians, explorers, and early European settlers.
Easy to kill and dependent on large tracts of prairie, the continent’s
estimated 60 million bison were nearly wiped out in the late 1800s. The combination
of hunters shooting for the market, railroads bi-secting the plains, and
cattle competing for range sent bison numbers plummet-
ing to fewer than 1,000 by the turn of the century.
Recovery was led by President Theodore Roosevelt and other conservation-minded sport hunters, who formed the American Bison Society in 1905. “The [near-] extermination of the buffalo has been a veritable tragedy of the animal world,” Roosevelt wrote. The organization pressed Congress to establish herds in Yellowstone National Park and other public wildlife refuges.
The effort succeeded. Today, roughly 8,500 bison exist in the wild along with 500,000 on commercial ranches. The largest wild herds roam Yellowstone National Park (4,000-plus), South Dakota’s Custer State Park (1,100), and preserves owned by The Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma (1,500) and Colorado (1,500).
Yellowstone’s bison population has been growing steadily since the mid-1960s, when the park decided to let wildlife populations naturally regulate themselves. Though the idea was to allow nature (weather, starvation, and predators) to control bison numbers naturally, that hasn’t happened. The park’s bison population has grown steadily from 400 (when the new policy was put in place) to more than 2,000 in the mid-1980s. According to Aune, roughly 4,500 bison will inhabit the park this winter.
“ It’s not really working,” says Aune of natural regulation. “Grizzly bears, wolves, and other predators don’t take enough bison to keep numbers down, and when the weather gets bad, the bison just leave the park.”
And that’s where the conflicts begin.
Common to cattle, bison, elk, and other ungulates, brucellosis abortus is a contagious disease that causes females to abort. The disease concerns wildlife managers, but it petrifies cattle ranchers. Over the past 40 years, the federal government, states, and livestock growers have spent several billion dollars to eradicate brucellosis in cattle. Currently, all but a few states have been designated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as brucellosis free. Montana cattle have been without the disease since 1985.
Wild bison and elk are the last remaining reservoirs of brucellosis in the United States, and the most significant concentration of these infected wildlife live in and around Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Though never proven to be transmitted in the wild from bison to cattle (due perhaps to efforts to keep bison away from cattle), studies have confirmed transmission between captive bison and cattle.
“ The risk is not huge, but it’s also not zero,” says Aune. “It’s significant enough that a state could lose its brucellosis-free status.”
That’s no idle speculation. In 2003, the USDA revoked Wyoming’s brucellosis-free certification after two separate herds of cattle, likely infected from elk concentrated at winter feeding grounds near Jackson Hole, were found with the disease. Steve Pilcher, executive vice president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, says the revocation means Wyoming ranchers must test all the cattle they sell to other states to prove the animals are not infected.
“ It’s a huge time and cost burden,” Pilcher says. “Montana
stockgrowers don’t want to go there.”
Not everyone buys the brucellosis scare, however. “From November to June, there are no cattle in much of the West Yellowstone area, because the winters are too harsh for cattle, so there is no risk of brucellosis transmission,” says Dan Brister, project coordinator with the Buffalo Field Campaign. The West Yellowstone–based group was formed to stop federal and state agencies from killing and harassing bison leaving the park. Brister says the U.S. For-est Service should close grazing allotments for the 2,000 or so cattle that graze in summer around Yellowstone National Park to reduce overlap between the livestock and bison. “We want buffalo to have access to public lands like elk and other wildlife,” he says. “The way things stand now, cattle have precedence on public land, and that’s not right.”
Limited management options
Allowing bison to continue expanding unchecked from the park is an option but probably not a realistic one. Even if grazing allotments on Forest Service land were restricted, the bison would eventually make their way to private cattle range, housing developments, roads, and other areas where they could create problems.
And yet, it would be just as unrealistic to test and then kill all infected bison in Yellowstone to eliminate the disease, as some ranchers demand. For nearly a century, the charismatic animal has been iconic of Indian and American cultures, appearing on the nickel and the U.S. Department of the Interior logo. What’s more, Yellowstone National Park is considered hallowed ground. National public outcry would likely halt at-tempts to kill large numbers of bison within the park. Containment would not work, either, because few people would tolerate an 8-foot-tall woven-wire fence surrounding the park.
Currently, bison distribution is managed with a combination of hazing and removal. In 2000 the National Park and U.S. Forest services, Montana’s Fish, Wildlife & Parks and Department of Livestock, other state and federal agencies, Indian tribes, and citizens developed a management plan. The goal of the multi-agency management agreement is to reduce the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle by keeping the animals away from each other. Bison are allowed to exit the park into certain areas except in summer and early fall, when cattle are grazing on nearby Forest Service land.
In other areas, snowmobilers or horseback riders haze the bison back into the park. When hazing doesn’t work, and the population exceeds the park’s carrying capacity of 3,000 animals, bison leaving the park may be killed. The bison are captured and sent to slaughter or are shot by staff from the Montana Department of Livestock, FWP, or Yellowstone Na-tional Park. The meat and hides are then do-nated to Indian tribes.
Because the bison population has continued to grow, an average of 250 bison have been killed under the management plan each year since the winter of 2001-02.
Why not let hunters take part?
Some hunters and Montana lawmakers point out that hunting could be used to help control bison numbers, as is done with other wildlife species.
“ If we have to kill bison to avoid a massive winter die-off, which no one wants to see, then we ought to let hunters pay for the opportunity rather than pay state and federal agents to do it,” says Montana Senator Gary Perry, who sponsored a bill passed in 2003 authorizing the FWP Commission to set a public hunting season for the first time since the legislature banned the practice in 1991. “Hunting is a regulated management tool used for elk, deer, and other big game. There’s no reason it can’t be used for bison.”
Except, say some, that bison are different. Though limited sport hunting was allowed on bison leaving the park as far back as 1953, hunts tried in recent years have been met with angry public protest. The worst fallout came in the winter of 1988-89, when Montana allowed hunt-ers to shoot hundreds of bison exiting the park, the largest buffalo hunt since the late 19th century. The Yellowstone fires the previous fall, along with deep snows and cold, forced a mass exodus of more than 3,000 bison from Yellowstone. Reporters from national TV news networks as well as publications such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal descended on the park to cover the spectacle of hunters lining up to shoot the emerging bison. “A Firing Squad for Buffalo: Montana-Style Hunting” read a Newsweek headline over the picture of a grinning hunter and his blood-drenched trophy. An article in Time referred to the hunt as a “public relations disaster.” Protesters attacked hunters with ski poles, and TV cameras filmed hunters ap-proaching to within 20 feet of bison before firing point blank at the grazing animals. Said one hunter quoted in People: “This is the most exciting hunt of my life!”
It was not hunting’s finest hour.
“ The big question for Montana is whether providing these relatively few bison hunting op-portunities is worth the negative national publicity that’s likely to occur,” says Larry Peterman, FWP operations chief. “From a wildlife management standpoint, hunting makes sense, because the most realistic way to manage the growing population is to reduce the number of bison, and it shouldn’t matter if it’s sharpshooters, hunters, or slaughterhouses. But from a social standpoint, hunting bison seems to be a huge deal.”
The Humane Society of the United States, Buffalo Field Campaign, and other animal rights groups have begun marshalling forces to protest the hunts, which could be held this winter. That concerns Ron Aasheim, chief of FWP’s Conservation Education Division. He remembers how media coverage of the late-1980s bison season created a national backlash against hunters.
“ We’re not opposed to bison hunting, but hunters need to be aware that this could be used against them and have long-term implications for hunting in Montana and nationwide,” Aasheim says.
But the new hunt, say supporters, will avoid the mistakes of previous ones. “It will be conducted just like those we have for moose, sheep, and elk,” says Perry. “It’s right there in the law.” Hunters won’t be escorted to the bison as before, but will have to find and stalk the animals on foot away from roads. And resident and nonresident hunter numbers will be restricted to promote “fair chase” standards maintained for other game animals. Hunt supporters also point out that bison hunts have been held for years without public protest on public herds in several provinces and states, including Yellowstone National Park bison venturing into Wyoming.
Bison hunting is allowed under the 2000 multi-agency management agreement. In the first year of Montana’s new hunting season, the FWP Commission authorized only a handful of licenses, though in future years numbers could be increased. Bison hunting limits will be regulated to maintain a healthy bison population of at least 3,000 animals in the park.
A chance for restoration?
While wildlife managers, ranchers, hunters, and protesters keep a sharp eye on the bison in and around Yellowstone National Park, a new research project is underway to explore the possibility of expanding brucellosis-free bison beyond park boundaries.
“ This agency and the people of Montana have an opportunity and an obligation to begin talking about where we go from here,” says Chris Smith, FWP chief of staff. “Is it possible to move beyond the stalemate at Yellowstone and see disease-free, free-ranging herds of bison elsewhere in Montana and other Great Plains states and provinces?”
The task would be difficult. Of foremost concern is finding bison completely free of brucellosis that would pose no threat to the cattle industry. Currently FWP is working with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to study the feasibility of finding and isolating disease-free bison leaving Yellowstone National Park. The park’s bison are among the continent’s most genetically diverse.
The idea behind the $4 million, two-year study is to strictly quarantine, for several years, Yellowstone bison calves that test negative for brucellosis. These animals and their young, if free of the disease, could then become the stock for restoration projects in other parts of the bison’s historic range.
“ What we’re trying to do with this study,” says Aune, “is
determine whether it’s possible to take bison from a diseased herd,
successfully screen and establish disease-free individuals, and capture their
genetics to establish other herds to restore bison elsewhere in North America.”
According to Aune, the study has been supported and reviewed by federal livestock and animal disease agencies as well as the Montana Department of Livestock. And FTP and the USDA have been discussing the idea with many other state and federal agencies as well as private organizations, Canadian provinces, and Indian tribes.
“ This may crack the door open into a new way of thinking about Yellowstone bison, one that focuses not just on containing infected bison in the park but of exporting disease-free bison out of the park to other selected sites,” Aune says.
Besides launching a restoration effort, the quarantine process could also help relieve pressure on Yellowstone’s burgeoning bison population.
“ It could be another management tool for removing bison, but in this case the animals would remain alive and be put elsewhere,” Aune says.
Senior FWP officials note that much work still needs to be done before any bison are transplanted to new sites. And Smith points out that “nothing will happen without further input from the livestock and farming community.”
But he also stresses that, with all the attention bison are getting lately, “this may be a great opportunity for Montanans to begin discussing how disease-free, free-ranging bison might be restored to select parts of their native range.”
Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.
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