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Cattlemen's Proposal Could Decimate Yellowstone's Bison Herds


    If any animal is iconic of Yellowstone National Park, that would be the bison. These massive, shaggy animals are a throwback to the days of the "Wild West" when vast millions lived on the high plains. As the American nation grew and populations slowly moved westward, these herds were all but wiped out.
Yellbisonvalley_copy     Today, bison largely are found only in Yellowstone, although there are some in the Henry Mountains of southern Utah, some in the National Bison Range in Montana, some on Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, and others in private ranches.
    However, if a short-sighted effort by a cattlemen's group gains traction, the Yellowstone herd could be drastically reduced.

    The plan, as outlined in the Casper Star-Tribune by Brodie Farquhar, comes in the form of a request to the U.S. Department of Agriculture to wipe out brucellosis in Yellowstone's bison herds. Ironically, brucellosis, a disease that can cause cattle to abort their unborn fetuses, was introduced to bison by....cattle a little more than a century ago.
    The request to Ag Secretary Mike Johanns came from "R-CALF" -- the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund. Now, while the newspaper story doesn't say whether the request actually calls for destroying Yellowstone's bison herds, currently the only way to eradicate brucellosis from bison is to kill those that have the disease.
“What R-CALF is really calling for,” Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition told Farquhar, “is the mass wasting of wildlife and the agricultural management of wildlife, rather than allowing wildlife agencies to do their job.”
    Of course, one of the problems with R-CALF's request is that bison aren't the only animals that carry brucellosis. Elk that live in and around Yellowstone also have been known to carry, and transmit, the disease. Yet the cattlemen's group is not asking that brucellosis be wiped out from those elk herds.
    That just might be because such a proposal would inflame hunters.


Kurt-- I think the cattlemen are stalking the wrong animal. Elk are much more likely to share pastures with cattle which increases the risk of transmission to cattle. When I was in Yellowstone in the mid 1990's, there was still not one documented case of transmission of brucellosis from bison to cattle in the wild. No one, however, wants to point the finger at elk. The states generate millions of dollars in out-of-state hunting licenses. Cattlemen sell elk hunts on their ranchs. It's big business. Bison get the blame but elk are much more likely culprits if any transmission does, in fact, take place.

This sort of stuff comes out all the time; I'm not too concerned about it. As far as bison management goes, there is bureaucratic gridlock, which means that bison die outside of Yellowstone, and more often than not (though not always), they live within it. The issue, though, is very dear to my heart, and I am so sad. What's happening with bison is ideological warfare at its purest since many of the issues related to brucellosis transmission and bison herds are smokescreens about land use, management, and who should control it. I just wish people were honest about that. The Buffalo Field Campaigns would in fact like to see buffalo be able to be restored to their native range, and at some point it will have an economic impact on the ways of lives of people who have invested into private ownership of livestock and land. The agricultural industry would like Yellowstone to be, in effect, a ranch so that they could better control the health and safety of their commodoties. The reality is an inconsistent mess in between. The longer that mess remains the way it is, further consequences keep arising. Everyone is scared of ideology, and yet everyone has one. Everyone has a set of beliefs that guide their actions. Few are willing to admit it. I've just posted my own essay on Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone, which you can get to by following the link here with my name. Chase is very critical about ideology without talking much about his own. I am not saying that there is no science involved in these issues but that they are always secondary to the belief systems of the people who use the science. Science gets tainted by ideologues, but people rarely attack the ideologies so much as they attack the misuse of the science. Anyhow, in my mind, brucellosis should not be a problem, and the agricultural industry should not under any circumstance be placated. However, why that's so goes to my own value system, and I wonder the degree and seriousness people are willing to have those conversations.

Another rather large herd of Bison reside in Wind Cave National Park ( in South Dakota. The National Park Service keeps the herd to level that is in tune with the amount of grass and each year has excess animals (I believe they auction them off) that might replace any animals that would be destroyed.

The NPS also watches over a sizeable bison herd at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota - which is one of the true hidden jewels of the National Park System...

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