Bison at the Edge
There were 1,616 free-living buffalo killed in winter 2007-08. How can we stop this carnage?
American bison, also known as buffalo, are the largest land mammals in North America. Mature bulls weigh up to 1,800 pounds and stand as high as six feet at the hump. Almost slaughtered to extinction by hunters in the late 19 th century, the current population in Yellowstone National Park is the largest and wildest free-roaming bison herd in the United States. 
When European explorers arrived, 30 million to 60 million bison roamed North America. During western expansion, the U.S. military encouraged the slaughter of bison as a way to destroy the Plains Indians, and the great herds disappeared within 25 years. Bison had the evolutionary strength to survive ice ages, disease and predation, but nothing prepared them for men with rifles.
By 1900, only 25 bison remained in Yellowstone.
When let alone, the Yellowstone bison herd has thrived; the population reached over 4,200 several years ago. As the population expanded, so did migration, and some bison began leaving the park to graze on private lands that are also used by domestic cattle.
While Yellowstone bison are considered free-roaming, they face a threat that results in hundreds to thousands being slaughtered virtually every year. That threat is animal agribusiness. Cattle carried the disease brucellosis when shipped over from Europe, and transmitted it to native bison herds.
The controversy over buffalo management today is a direct result of the transmission of brucellosis to wild buffalo from domestic cattle housed within Yellowstone National Park at the turn of the last century.
Brucellosis can cause an abortion of the first pregnancy in both cattle and bison. The disease can also produce the rare undulant fever in humans. Over decades, industry eradicated the disease in cattle by testing and culling. Bison became the major reservoirs of infection.
Montana lost its brucellosis-free status in 2008, the Great Falls Tribune reported, when cattle herds were found to be infected, and Wyoming’s status is threatened with a new discovery this year of brucellosis in one rancher’s herd.
Cattle ranching is a big industry in Montana, where the 2.6 million cows outnumber humans 2 ½ to one. The industry provides more than $1 billion in annual income -- making it the largest component of agribusiness.
A vaccine was developed to prevent brucellosis in cattle, but many ranchers don’t want to pay for it. In response to rancher demands, the Montana Department of Livestock began testing the Yellowstone bison herd back in 2000; bison testing positive for the disease are slaughtered. Only cows can transmit brucellosis, yet bulls and calves are also routinely slaughtered.
Many believe the genetic viability of the Yellowstone population is now threatened by the state’s wanton killing to protect cattle production.
Brucellosis has caused controversy not only in the debate surrounding bison management, but also in elk management. As the brucellosis discovered on a Wyoming ranch is thought to be transmitted from elk, now elk are also being targeted for slaughter.
Montana wildlife officials are laying the groundwork for expanded disease testing and more public hunting to cut down on elk numbers and keep them out of areas with cattle. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks doubled the quota for a special management hunting season around Yellowstone to 2,000 elk. Its regional supervisor for the Yellowstone area was quoted in the Great Falls Tribune : “We need to look at how do we either change population numbers or change how elk are distributed on the landscape.”
In contrast, Wyoming’s chief wildlife manager believes it is currently impossible to purge brucellosis from bison and elk in the Yellowstone ecosystem, and that it’s up to the ranching industry to vaccinate cattle.
Unfortunately, no one is talking about changing cattle population numbers or redistributing them on the landscape.
In Grand Teton National Park, where infected buffalo and cattle have co-mingled for more than 45 years, there has not been a single incident of disease transmission. Brucellosis can raise the cost of doing business for cattle producers, but it poses no real threat to wildlife in the Yellowstone region, Brandon Scurlock, a brucellosis expert with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, told the Great Falls Tribune.
Recently, the state of Montana proposed the creation of a split-state zone. Cattle ranchers near Yellowstone would have to test their entire herds for brucellosis and vaccinate their animals against the disease. The plan allows for less stringent testing and vaccination requirements outside the Yellowstone area. Federal officials have estimated that testing and vaccination requirements will cost Montana cattle producers $6 - $12 million – about $20 per animal. The ranchers want state and federal agencies to cover some of the costs for them. Yellowstone has capitulated to industry, and maintains bison too should be vaccinated.
It is extraordinarily difficult to find a conservation issue more vexing than the plight of the Yellowstone bison. And it gets more complex still, with the commercial raising of buffalo by ranchers. Buffalo are legally classified now as both livestock and wildlife. This directly conflicts with conservation goals to maintain wild free-roaming populations of bison with genetic and regional diversity.
FACTS FROM THE BUFFALO FIELD CAMPAIGN
- There has never been a documented case of a wild, free-roaming buffalo infecting domestic cattle with brucellosis.
- While some of Yellowstone’s buffalo test positive for antibodies to brucellosis, a positive test indicates only that the animal has been exposed to the disease, which in many cases simply means it has acquired disease resistance. Buffalo who test “positive” are not necessarily infected with the disease or capable of transmitting it to other buffalo or to cattle.
- Cattle are typically only present within 45 miles of Yellowstone National Park between mid-June and mid-October, a period when there is no possibility of brucellosis transmission.
- The agencies are wasting $2.8 million tax-dollars each year to harass, capture, and slaughter Yellowstone's buffalo.
- Though Montana claims the threat of brucellosis is great, ranchers are not required to vaccinate their cattle against the disease.
What You Can Do
Avoid the products of animal agribusiness.
Animal agribusiness causes great harm to wildlife. "Beef, it's what's for dinner"? It’s what’s polluting land and water, what’s killing wild buffalo, wild horses, prairie dogs, wolves, and countless other plant and animal species -- to appease producers.
Consumption of animal products perpetuates the cycle, and puts money in the pockets of the industry. What's the price of beef? The death of the wild.
Call Yellowstone National Park and Montana’s governor to oppose the current policies affecting the Yellowstone bison.
Yellowstone National Park Superintendent Suzanne Lewis
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer
- Killing elk and bison is unethical.
- Public lands currently designated for animal agribusiness should be reclassified to give priority to native wildlife species, including wild buffalo.
- Landowners who allow wild buffalo to access their land should be provided with tax incentives through the Habitat Montana program. (The current property tax structure in Montana provides tax breaks for agribusiness.)
Sign the Stop the Slaughter Petition at www.buffalofieldcampaign.org/stoptheslaughter.html
- Michael S. Sample, Bison: Symbol of the American West (1987), at 9.
- Ibid., at 52.
- Ibid., at 25.
- Ibid., at 37.
- Ibid., at 46. The Yellowstone bison are the descendents of that original group and plains bison transplanted into Yellowstone. Ibid. p. 27
- Ibid., at 59.
- Harold Picton, Buffalo: Natural History & Conservation (2006), at 46.
- Ibid., at 60.
- The downgrade means Montana ranchers will be required to test all sexually intact cattle over 18 months of age within 30 days of export. Cattle sent directly to slaughter are exempted from testing.
- Buffalo: Natural History & Conservation, at 60.