With Yellowstone's Bison, Why Aren't the Times A-Changin'?

Don't you think it's time for your tax dollars to stop funding the needless harassment and slaughter of the icon of the West?
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With 300 wild bison captured earlier this week and many of them now awaiting slaughter, Yellowstone National Park’s annual wildlife tragedy is well underway. Call me wishfully naïve, but I thought things would be different this year.

The last big slaughter came in 2008, when more than 1,400 bison from Yellowstone’s iconic population were captured and slaughtered. That same year, the federal Government Accountability Office issued a lengthy report detailing the failings of the federal and state agencies that collectively manage Yellowstone’s bison. The agencies were put on notice.

The problem with the Interagency Bison Management Plan (IBMP), the multi-agency framework that governs Yellowstone’s bison population, is that its inert state has always been one of inherent conflict. Such conflict stems from the IBMP’s two main goals: conserve a wild, free-roaming bison population and minimize the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison to cattle.

Because some of Yellowstone’s bison carry brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes pregnant females to miscarry, the conventional wisdom has been that bringing Goal One (conserving a wild, free-roaming bison population) to fruition would detract from Goal Two (minimizing the risk of brucellosis transmission from bison cattle). As such, tne of the two IBMP goals essentially had to be chosen at the expense of the other.

If you’ve been paying any attention to Yellowstone bison management over the past several years, you know that Goal Two has been – quite literally – kicking Goal One’s ass, as thousands of bison have been hazed back into the Park or slaughtered in the name of brucellosis since 2000.

Yet, as my grandmother used to say about conventional wisdom, you can’t trust it any more than you can a hungry badger. (Okay, Nana never said that, but she should’ve, as hungry badgers are notoriously untrustworthy.) Had my grandma said that, she’d have been right, as the conventional wisdom of picking one IBMP goal over the other makes no sense in light of the significant new developments in the Yellowstone bison world.

First, new science shows that a bison-to-cattle brucellosis transmission is extremely unlikely to ever occur. Brucellosis is primarily transmitted through ingesting birthing materials from an infected animal. This means there’s a limited window of transmission, the birthing season, which roughly amounts to late winter and spring. Transmission-prevention practices (i.e., keeping wild bison and domestic cattle separate) are therefore only largely needed during this time. And because the lands adjacent to Yellowstone remain fairly wintry well into the year, domestic cattle do not arrive for summer grazing until June or July, which constricts the transmission window even more.

Other environmental factors further narrow the transmission window. The brucella bacteria, the transmission vehicle, is killed by UV rays from the sun. By the time cattle show up in June and July, the sun is an efficient brucella-killing machine (i.e., the later into the year you get, the longer and hotter the sun shines, the more quickly brucella gets zapped). Also, the lands near Yellowstone National Park are crawling with carnivores and scavengers. Available meat doesn’t last very long on this landscape, which means brucella-infected birthing material also doesn’t last very long. Simply put, the risk of brucellosis transmission from wild bison to domestic cattle is extraordinarily small.

Second – and this one’s a whopper – the U.S. Department of Agriculture just recently overhauled its brucellosis regulations for the nation’s livestock producers. Previously, the regulations mandated killing a rancher’s entire herd when an outbreak was discovered – even if only one cow was infected. And two outbreaks in less than two years meant Montana (or any other state in the same position) lost its brucellosis-free status and thus faced increased red tape and restrictions. Now that has all changed.

Following an outbreak, so-called “depopulation” of the entire herd is no longer required. Quarantine, testing, and slaughter of infected animals (with their meat free to enter our food system) is the new protocol. States will no longer lose their brucellosis-free status if two outbreaks occur in less than two years. Brucellosis will be treated like other diseases, with a case-by-case, performance-based approach. With the bubble of the old brucellosis regulatory hell popped, we’re now in a whole new world for bison and brucellosis (yet, shockingly, the mainstream media articles covering the Yellowstone bison issue never mention this game-changing development).

Third, there are only a handful of cattle producers these days in the “conflict zones” near the Park, and some of these ranchers don’t buy into the whole brucellosis hysteria. In fact, an article this week reported that neither of the two year-round ranchers on the north side of the Park is concerned about a brucellosis outbreak from bison. One of the ranchers was even quoted as saying, “We can live with the animals. Buffalo are part of the overall picture. If you don't want them, go get a farm in Iowa."

Fourth (now for the “oh, yeah” moment), what about the tens of thousands of wild elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, some of whom also carry brucellosis and have been responsible for the only brucellosis transmissions to cattle in the region in the past decade. Unlike bison, elk are allowed to roam freely, as they should, but it begs the question: why do we haze and slaughter Yellowstone bison while tens of thousands of elk wander as they please?

The time for increased tolerance for Yellowstone bison outside the Park has arrived. Thousands of acres of public land are yearning for the return of the thundering hooves of North America’s largest land mammal. Business owners, hunters and outfitters, Native Americans, landowners, and others want to see wild bison treated like other native wildlife in Montana. And all governments – federal, state, and local – are looking for ways to cut costs in these dire economic times.

Don’t you think it’s time for your tax dollars to stop funding the needless harassment and slaughter of the icon of the West?

Photo by Anthony Clark of NRDC. This article originally appeared in The Bozeman Magpie on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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