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Yellowstone Bison Gain Reprieve


    If you haven't heard by now, a temporary solution has been reached between the state of Montana and Yellowstone National Park officials over some 300 bison that have moved west of the park.
    Rather than trucking the bison off to slaughter, the animals will instead be trucked back into the park to the Stephens Creek area.
    While the folks over at the Buffalo Field Campaign are celebrating this perceived "victory," in truth it's merely a stopgap measure. What this week's events have demonstrated is that there is not yet a workable, mutually satisfactory plan for managing Yellowstone's bison.
    What the long-running bison saga demonstrates is that you can't artificially draw lines around a species' habitat. If that's what the powers-that-be insist on doing, then it would seem the only politically approved way to deal with bison that leave the park is to kill them in one fashion or another, whether that be via hunting or trucking them to slaughter, or truck them back into the park, a laughable proposition if made permanent policy.

    The problem has been long in making. It started with the park's boundaries, which don't reflect biological realities. It continued when cattle transmitted brucellosis to bison decades ago. It blossomed into rage back during the winter of 1996-97 when more than 1,000 bison were gunned down in Montana after leaving Yellowstone's because their forage was locked out of reach beneath thick, hoary layers of ice and snow.
    To some, the bison are no more Yellowstone's than are the other wildlife that migrate in and out of the park. And there's a measure of truth in that. Unfortunately, over the decades Yellowstone has evolved into a bison, and elk, sanctuary of sorts and so the view persists, particularly with the bison, that they are unique to the park and so should be protected wherever they range.
    And range they will. Bison and elk are hard-wired to leave Yellowstone in winter in a search of more survivable climates and forage in the relative lowlands of Montana and Wyoming.
    Beyond that, and many hate to hear this, but to some extent parks such as Yellowstone are akin to open-air zoos, sanctuaries where some species -- elk and bison -- have been allowed to grow in populations that the park's range wouldn't normally accommodate.
    Indeed, in Wyoming bison by and large are relegated to the safety of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. While the shaggy beasts are marveled at within that context, few appreciate it when they wander beyond those preserves.
    Park officials and biologists have struggled mightily to manage the park's wildlife almost from the beginning. Bison poaching in Yellowstone attracted national attention in the 1890s, leading to the first effective wildlife protection in the park. Wolves decades ago where driven -- exterminated, really -- from Yellowstone because they were viewed as carnivorous pests.
    More recent attempts to "manage" Yellowstone's bison and keep the park's elk herds healthy contribute to this zoo view. When bison leave the park, efforts are made to haze them back into it. When elk leave Yellowstone in winter and head south into Wyoming, they can choose from a number of publicly financed feeding grounds to find nourishment.
    Trying to keep Yellowstone's wildlife menagerie in a human view of harmonious balance is fraught with pitfalls.
    When wolves were first driven from the park, their prey base -- elk -- exploded. So much so that in the early 1960s park officials resorted to an aerial assault to reduce the burgeoning elk herd on the northern range. The public backlash was explosive when stories flashed about the country, describing how helicopters herded thousands of elk to their deaths. Particularly inflammatory was the fact that some elk broke legs trying to flee the helicopters and had to be dispatched on the ground where they lay thrashing in pain.
     "One wounded cow was squealing and the butchers, who were unarmed, had to dispatch the pitiful animals with a hand-ax," read one story in Sports Afield.
Today the public outcry arrives much more quickly, thanks to the Internet that allows words and pictures to circle the globe in minutes, not days.
    So what do we do?
    At the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, officials are willing to pay ranchers thousands of dollars not to graze their cattle in the West Yellowstone area until mid-June. Unfortunately, this is not a permanent solution, nor even one that might assuredly solve this year's predicament, as the bison might not head back into the park on their own by then and efforts to haze them back into Yellowstone might fail again.

    Now, GYC does offer a long-range plan that it sees as a solution, one that involves obtaining more bison habitat outside of the park, altering cattle grazing schedules, building fences, and other measures. And I expect we'll hear more from Yellowstone and Montana officials, and even Congress, which earlier this spring held a hearing into the plight of Yellowstone's bison.
    Whether any forthcoming proposal satisfactorily copes with the natural instincts of wildlife remains to be seen.
    "The bison want to expand their range; they shouldn't be artificially trucked back to Yellowstone to eat more range," reader Jim Macdonald observed when he heard of the compromise hashed out yesterday by Yellowstone and Montana officials. "Bison live, but there will be consequences, first of which is that we still think we can play god and make everyone happy."


Build fences?! What are we going to do - fence in the park?!! Farmers who live near a national park need to understand what that entails. If they don't like it, they can move - I'm sure there's a developer that would pay big bucks for some land near Yellowstone. Talk about death knells to NPS...

Kurt, your blog "Yellowstone Bison Gain Reprieve" is a excellent piece of commmentary on the bison issue in Yellowstone National Park. Well researched! I wonder what approach the Craighead Institute would have on this issue...probably advocate more open space for wildlife and less human intrusion. Less cowboy influence and more open range is the key to this poor animals demise.

Hey jr ranger...I got news for ya...most of those farmers were there LONG before Yellowstone was made a park...their grandfathers or great-grandfathers fed the building of this great nation with their ranching or farming. So just remember, the park (government) serves at the pleasure of the American people, not the other way around. The park can cease to exist if the American taxpayer wishes it so.

Hey Sally--One small correction: Yellowstone was a park (1872) before many people other than American Indians were farming or ranching in the area. I suspect that most people living around the park would be horrified if Yellowstone ceased to exist.

Yeah, they live off tourism, (including those "EVIL *snicker* snowmobiles" tourism) but I garandamnteeya those same people would put private property rights above a government land grab... ...and you are wrong, whites settled the area before the park was born.

Geez Sally, please do your homework before you go rambling off at the mouth.

There were a few whites settling in the area before the official park. They generally weren't farming. They set up makeshift hotels, they offered to sell healing in the hot springs, at Mammoth. In the early years of the Park, some squatted. There was very little settlement, however. In fact, that's exactly what was needed to convince Congress to create Yellowstone National Park, that there was no other public good to the park except sightseeing and that was best protected in this instance by public control. I've written about this in my essays denouncing John Locke's theories. I suspect that Sally would be right, though, that if Yellowstone had already been settled by farmers, then it would have never become a national park. However, Rick is right that whites in fact weren't farming in the area, that it was still mostly being used by an area to pass through on the way to bison herds for some tribes, for more semi-permanent residency by Sheepeater Indians following bighorn sheep migration. The days of trapping had long passed, and there were never many whites even then. Some were coming through the area looking for gold. They didn't find much, and that's another reason Congress could be convinced to set it aside. Anyhow, Yellowstone and the national park idea is quite interesting; it seems to be the antithesis of the general trend of the 19th century but in fact it's really only part of the trend, which became different only because of different circumstances not so much because the place brought out humanity's better instincts.

Jim, your historical perspective of Yellowstone is quite accurate. Prior, to the white man's settlment to Yellowstone, the U.S. second calvary was sent into the park to curtail any potential violence from the native Indians in the area (from 1879 to 1881, the Nez Perce upraising and the Bannock Indian problems in the Mammoth region). There was very little tourism in Yellowstone at that time due to these flare ups, nor do I see from my readings that any white man layed foot to ranch or farm in Yellowstone region prior the founding of the park in 1872. Yes, your right about a smattering of prospectors and trappers traversing Yellowstone for a livelihood but no reference to homesteading that I can see (See Yellowstone: A Wilderness Besieged by Richard A. Bartlett, published in 1989 by the University of Arizona Press)

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