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Buffalo Roam at Their Own Peril

Yellowstone's bison risk being rounded up for slaughter if they stray. Ranchers fear they will infect cattle with brucellosis.

May 04, 2003|Bettina Boxall | Times Staff Writer

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — As spring advanced on the rolling hills of the northern range, park workers on horseback herded more than 200 bison into corrals near the massive stone arch that marks Yellowstone's original entrance.

While protesters recorded the roundup on video and law enforcement officials followed in squad cars with flashing lights, 61 bulls, 116 cows and 54 10-month-old calves were loaded into livestock trailers, trucked across the Yellowstone River past the motels and gas stations of the little tourist town of Gardiner, and hauled to slaughterhouses.

The National Park Service was executing its own icon, the brawny beast it helped save from oblivion, the one that is emblazoned on Park Service uniform badges.

At the same time that Yellowstone's buffalo herd is celebrated for its wildness and genetic purity, it is maligned by cattle ranchers as a disease-carrying threat to livestock grazing next to the park.

Today the bison are free to roam just as their ancestors did, as long as they don't act too wild and wander over the park boundary into Montana. Then they can be driven back into the park and carted off to slaughter, lest they infect cattle with brucellosis -- a disease the buffalo probably got originally from livestock.

The story of the largest continuously free-ranging bison herd in the U.S. is also about the limits of wildness in America's first great wilderness park. Nature is supposed to reign supreme in Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres, determining what lives and what dies. Yet when it comes to Yellowstone's few thousand bison, nature's rules have been subordinated to those of the cattle industry.

The New West's appetite for wildness is likely to be further tested as the federal government moves to ease or drop endangered-species protections for two of Yellowstone's other fabled species: the gray wolf and grizzly bear. Will they be allowed to truly roam free, or will they be safe only within the federal parks?

"Where can these large carnivores reside? What is socially tolerable and economically feasible?" mused Nina Fascione, vice president of species conservation for Defenders of Wildlife. "I don't think anybody knows. We're new at this. We just know how to kill them off."

After a 60-year battle with brucellosis, cattle herds in all but two states, Texas and Missouri, have been officially declared free of the disease, which causes cows to abort, decreases milk production and induces sterility. The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects brucellosis to be banished soon from livestock in those two states as well, which will make the Yellowstone area's bison and elk the nation's last known carriers of the disease.

The government wants it gone from them too.

"As long as it's endemic in wildlife in the Greater Yellowstone Area, it does pose a threat to cattle in surrounding states," said Jack Rhyan, senior staff veterinarian for the USDA's National Center for Animal Health Programs.

Infected cattle herds are destroyed, and if a state loses its brucellosis-free status, stockmen have to test livestock before shipping it out of state.

The disease was found in Yellowstone bison in 1917. It has had little effect on the herd and, for the first half of the last century, the park infection was not much of an issue.

But as the government campaign against brucellosis mounted and the size of the Yellowstone herd grew after the park stopped culling buffalo in the late 1960s, so did pressure on the Park Service to do something.

Montana has been so riled about the brucellosis threat that, over the years, it has approved a hunting season for bison roaming outside the park, sued the federal government and declared Yellowstone buffalo "a species in need of disease management."

The hunting season was repealed in 1991 after turning into a public relations nightmare, but this spring the state legislature voted to reinstate it in a bill now awaiting the governor's signature.

The brucellosis controversy reached a boiling point during the winter of 1996-97, when bison headed out of the park's deep snow and ice en masse in search of food and more than 1,000 were shot by the Montana Department of Livestock and the Park Service. A few hundred more died of starvation, thinning the herd from 3,500 to 2,000 animals in months. The killings made headlines across the country and prompted a public outcry.

In 2000, the park adopted a compromise in the form of a bison plan that recognizes the herd as wild and free-roaming but, paradoxically, limits its size and movement out of the park.

That is why the Park Service says it rounded up 231 of the large animals this spring and shipped them off to slaughter like so many feed-lot cattle. The herd was approaching 4,000 animals, exceeding the plan's target size of 3,000, a figure above which bison movement from Yellowstone is likely to increase, according to a National Academy of Sciences report.

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